King John

Newark Castle was the scene of the death of King John in 1216.

The medieval King John is a controversial historical figure perhaps best known for his part in the Robin Hood legend and as the monarch who signed Magna Carta. He’s often referred to as ‘Bad King John’ for imprisoning his former wife, starving his opponents to death, allegedly murdering his own nephew and taxing the country to the hilt to pay for his expensive foreign wars.

But was he as bad as history and legend would have us believe?

Magna Carta

The Barons' war began in 1215 with a march on London, demanding that King John obey the law. He refused and they captured the city, demanding their rights be laid down in writing.

King John agreed, laying out the obligations of the barons and setting limits on the powers of the monarchy in one of the world’s most well-known documents, Magna Carta. There’s an introduction to Magna Carta, including a video narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, on the British Library website. This was the first formal document stating that the monarch was as much under the rule of law as his people, and that the rights of individuals were to be upheld even against the wishes of the sovereign.

The Pope decreed that King John did not have to adhere to the conditions of Magna Carta, resulting in the breakout of civil war. The barons called upon the French for support and the Tower of London was seized.

King John escaped, arriving at Newark Castle after losing his war chest and all his jewels in The Wash.

He died of dysentry at the Castle in 1216.