King John

John, styled “King of England, Lord of Ireland,” and so forth, was born at Oxford, 24th December 1166, and came to Ireland as Viceroy in 1185. It is said to have been King Henry’s intention to have him crowned King of Ireland.

Pope Urban III. had ratified his title to the crown, and even transmitted a diadem of gold interwoven with peacock’s feathers; but dread of the jealousy of his other sons prevented Henry carrying this plan into execution.

The prince was accompanied by Giraldus Cambrensis as tutor and secretary, and was attended by a numerous retinue, comprising many ecclesiastics, 300 knights, and a large body of cavalry, archers, and men-at-arms, all in sixty ships.

Sailing from Milford, the fleet reached Waterford about noon on Easter Thursday, 1185. We are told that several of the chiefs who came to pay their respects to him on his arrival were insulted by the youths of his suite, who mocked their long beards, which appeared ridiculous to the closely-shaven Anglo-Normans.

The native princes were further incensed by lands which they believed Henry II. had secured to them, being seized and given to John’s followers.

Yielding to the allurements of vice, and repelling the counsels of his advisers, John devoted himself to luxurious enjoyment, and squandered among his associates the revenues of the towns which should have been applied to the defence of the colony and the payment of the soldiery.

In a series of unsuccessful engagements with the Irish he lost almost his entire army, including some of his most valiant knights, and several of the newly erected castles were sacked by the native princes.

Part of these troubles were due to intrigues fomented by Hugh de Lacy, who was incensed at having been superseded in the viceroyalty.

After a sojourn of about eight months in Ireland, John was recalled and the government was committed to De Courcy.

His character is thus sketched by Cambrensis at the time:

“He is more given to pleasure than to arms, to dalliance than endurance; to juvenile levity, more as yet, than to manly maturity, which he has not attained. He employs most of his time in those evil courses which gallants pursue, by which even youths who are naturally good are often roused to feats of arms.”

John was crowned King on 27th May 1199, and again visited Ireland in 1210.

The Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland, 1171–1251, is full of interesting particulars of his preparations for the expedition, and of the stores and warlike material got together, much the same as those enumerated in his father’s preparations for the invasion of the island twenty-eight years before. [See HENRY II.]

This second expedition was principally for the purpose of chastising De Braosa, De Lacy, and other lords then in rebellion against his authority. His fleet consisted of 700 vessels. He landed at Waterford on 20th June. Thence he marched to Thomastown, Kilkenny, and Naas, and on the 28th June arrived at Dublin. There he tarried but two days; and then proceeded north to Trim and Kells.

Reinforced by O’Brien of Thomond, and Cathal O’Conor, King of Connaught, he marched against Hugh de Lacy. Passing through Dundalk, Carlingford, and Downpatrick, he arrived at Carrickfergus.

This stronghold he besieged and captured, making prisoners of De Lacy’s bravest soldiers. De Braosa’s wife and his relatives were captured in Galloway. The King liberated them on guarantee of a payment of 50,000 marks ransom.

On the 29th July King John turned southwards, marched through Drogheda and Kells, and reached Dublin again on 18th August. There he delayed about a week, occupied with public affairs.

The Anglo-Norman lords were compelled to swear obedience to the laws of England; he divided the territories under his sway into twelve counties—Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Uriel (or Louth), Catherlagh (or Carlow), Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Kerry, and Tipperary, and arrangements were made for the government of the country.

He granted a charter to the King of Connaught, who surrendered to John the castle of Athlone, and consented to hold his territories from the King for a subsidy of 5,000 marks, and an annual payment in Dublin of 300 marks.

John ordered the erection of numerous castles, and confirmed charters he had granted to the Leper Hospital at Waterford and other institutions.

After a sojourn of sixty-six days in Ireland, John landed at Fishguard, in Wales, on the 26th of August.

The first sterling money was coined in Ireland under his directions. His vigorous efforts for the government of Ireland on the occasion of his second visit scarcely accord with the disposition usually attributed to him.

In 1213 John surrendered his kingdom of England and lordship of Ireland to Pope Innocent III., and received them back, swearing fealty and promising to pay yearly 700 marks to the English church, and 300 marks to the Irish; and on 28th October next year the Pope issued a bull commanding the archbishops, bishops, abbots, prelates, princes, earls, barons, knights, and people of Ireland, to preserve fealty to King John.

John died at Newark Castle, Notts, 19th October 1216, aged 49, and was buried in Worcester Cathedral.


134. Four Masters, Annals of Ireland by the: Translated and Edited by John O’Donovan. 7 vols. Dublin, 1856.

148. Giraldus Cambrensis: Topography, and History of the Conquest in Ireland: Forester and Wright. London, 1863.

311. State Papers relating to Ireland, Calendar 1171-1610. 6 vols. London, 1860-’75.

335. Viceroys of Ireland, History: John T. Gilbert. Dublin, 1865.