Some monarchs are bad because they are totally incompetent or hopeless: think Henry VI or perhaps Stephen. Others are bad because they are actually evil: take ‘Bloody’ Mary, for example, or perhaps her father Henry VIII on a bad day. King John seems to have been both: a hopeless ruler and a truly despicable character. This is probably why there has never been a King John II.

He had been born in or around the year 1166, a full century after the Battle of Hastings which first brought the Norman Kings to power in England. His parents were Henry II (best known for ‘accidentally-on-purpose’ killing Archbishop Thomas a Beckett) and the powerful French Eleanor of Aquitaine, now best known as Judith Keppel’s winning answer on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

John was the youngest son. His father dubbed him ‘Lackland’ as he did not expect him to inherit much territory of his own. In fact, John ended up inheriting substantial amounts of land from his parents. But he ended up losing most of it within five years to France. Soon he was nicknamed ‘Soft Sword’ as well as ‘Lackland.’ Neither were glorious nicknames especially when compared to his brother, Richard The Lionheart, who had been king before him.

John harmed himself and his kingdom in other ways too. Although in his thirties, he became infatuated with the thirteen-year-old Isabella of Angoulême, causing considerable upset by getting his marriage to his current wife – also called Isabella – annulled in order to marry the younger Isabella. He is said to have been so ‘distracted’ by his new bride that he lost Normandy as a result.

Even worse was John’s treatment of his young nephew, Prince Arthur. The son of John’s dead brother, Geoffrey, Arthur arguably had a stronger claim to the throne than his Uncle John. John imprisoned his nephew and threatened to have him blinded and castrated. He is later said to have murdered Arthur one night in his cell after getting very drunk. Is this story true? After 800 years, it is hard to be sure. However, we do know that, at the very least, King John was responsible for Arthur’s disappearance. There were also rumours that John had the wife and young son of a friend imprisoned and deliberately starved to death over a long period. It is little wonder he is always portrayed as a villain in the legendary stories about Robin Hood.

Soon, everyone was sick of King John. He even fell out with the Pope and soon found himself excommunicated (removed from the church – seen as a very bad thing in those days). Everyone, from the very richest to the poorest was being taxed to the hilt as John desperately attempted to raise funds for his disastrous foreign wars. Eventually, the barons of England rose up against him and forced him to sign the famous Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.

Although John did not keep to his promises, Magna Carta turned out to be the most important consequence of his reign. Two elements in particular: that no one could be imprisoned without trial and that no taxes could be raised “unless by common council of our kingdom” subsequently became key pillars of both the English and later the United States constitutions. Despite being a very bad king, the excesses of John’s reign (1199-1216) had some positive consequences.

In the short run, however, King John was an unmitigated disaster. In his final days, he lost much of his treasure when a boat sank as he was crossing the River Wash. He died soon afterwards after overdosing on cider and peaches.

He left a kingdom, close to bankruptcy, in a state of civil war and with only a nine-year-old boy, his son, Henry III to succeed him. Perhaps no king was ever as bad as “Bad King John.”