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James William Edmund Doyle , A Chronicle of England, 1864

King John

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's King John

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): France thinks that Arthur should be king; they fight; France thinks that Louis should be king; they fight; Henry becomes king.

King John Summary

King John goes to war against the French after claims that his nephew should be king instead. John has conflict with the church, orders his nephew's death, and turns the nobles against himself. In the end, John dies from poison, the French retreat, and his son becomes King.

More detail: 3.5 minute read

Act I

King John and his mother, Queen Eleanor, greet a French ambassador. The French king, Philip, sent the ambassador to claim the English throne on behalf of John’s nephew, Prince Arthur. Philip himself is interested in and supportive of Arthur's claim to the throne. John and Eleanor reject the embassy, and France threatens war. 

Shortly afterwards, Robert and Philip Faulconbridge come to the King to settle their family inheritance dispute. There is confusion in the inheritance law as Philip is older but is an illegitimate child. During their discussion, Eleanor claims that Philip is the bastard son of John’s late brother, Richard Coeur-de-lion (Lionheart). Philip decides to let go of his Faulconbridge inheritance in favour of joining Queen Eleanor’s army to France. He is given knighthood and the title Sir Richard. His mother, Lady Faulconbridge, arrives to defend her honour. But she privately admits that Richard Coeur-de-lion was Philip's father.

King John sits at a table covered with a white cloth, on which are many dishes of food. Various figures (all male) sit either side of him. Above the table is a shield on a pole hanging above John's head. A coroneted prince is serving him wine.
A Chronicle of England, Doyle, 1864

Act II

In France, King Philip and his court resolve to fight for Arthur’s claim to the English throne. They begin an attack on the English-owned city of Angers. King John arrives to state his right to the French throne, and King Philip once again pledges support to Arthur. Eleanor argues with Constance, Arthur's mother, about the claims of their respective sons. The nobles try to keep the peace between them. Hubert, spokesman for the town of Angers, is asked to judge between the claims. Hubert states that Angers will support whoever wins the throne. Battle ensues, but both armies claim victory (while neither really wins). Angers maintains its stance. 

For new-made honor doth forget men's names.

— King John, Act 1 Scene 1

After there is no recourse in fighting, the bastard Philip suggests that they unite and punish Angers for their indecision. The spokesman Hubert (now suddenly full of ideas) proposes a peace marriage between John’s niece, Blanche, and the French Dauphin, Louis, to unite both countries. John supports the match by promising five English provinces within France as dowry. Louis and Blanche agree, and John gives Arthur a noble title to pacify Arthur's mother. The bastard Philip sees John’s capitulation as an unwelcome compromise and resolves to pursue riches for himself.

King John, RSC, 1988. Two men stand against a background of ladders. Both wear 19th century military uniforms; the older man has a furred cape over his shoulder. Both look grim as they stare to the left.
King John, RSC, 1988


Constance bewails the new Anglo-French alliance and her son’s lost inheritance. Arthur himself wishes for peace. On Louis and Blanche's wedding day, Constance continues to argue. Cardinal Pandolph, on embassy for the Pope, interrupts the wedding party. He questions John’s refusal to acknowledge the new Archbishop of Canterbury. After criticising and denying the Pope’s distant power, John is excommunicated. King Philip is originally hesitant to oppose John due to the newly-formed ties between him and John, but Pandolph persuades King Philip to oppose John (and remove him from office). 

In the ensuing battle, King John captures Prince Arthur and takes him to Hubert’s care in England. Eleanor and the Bastard continue the French wars. John persuades Hubert of Angers that Arthur must die as he presents too much of a threat to John’s throne. King Philip and Louis mourn the loss of Angers and Prince Arthur. Constance, distraught at her son’s loss, blames the Cardinal, and commits herself wholly to grief. The Cardinal persuades Louis to attack England while the country is in turmoil. He tells Philip that Philip has a claim to the throne. Under the direction of King John, Hubert is ordered to kill Arthur. 

Act IV 

Hubert first threatens to blind the Prince, and then to take his life, but relents when the boy pleads for mercy. Hubert decides to hide him instead. 

Be great in act, as you have been in thought.

— King John, Act 5 Scene 1

King John consults with his courtiers, who ask for Arthur’s freedom, knowing that Hubert was ordered to kill him. A messenger brings news from France: Eleanor and Constance have both died (Constance of madness). And Louis is threatening to invade England. The Bastard arrives to tell of his success in raising support, bringing a prisoner, whom John immediately imprisons in Hubert’s care. Hubert tells John that Arthur is dead, much to the dismay and anger of his nobles, many of whom go to join Louis in his siege. When John becomes angry at Hubert, he denies he has carried out the murder. Meanwhile, Arthur has killed himself by jumping from the castle walls. The nobles who find his body blame Hubert and John; more of them join Louis in rebellion against John. 

King John, RSC, 1957. Constance sits with her body twisted, her hands with spread fingers at her throat, and her loose dark hair cascading over her shoulders. She is wearing a 1940s raincoat.
King John, RSC, 1957

Act V

As the French forces move towards London, strengthened by the defecting lords, John yields to the Church's supremacy in return for protection. Pandolph speaks with Louis on John's behalf, but Louis won't be swayed. The Bastard, leading the King's forces, also sues for peace with the rebels, but battle rages regardless. John, struck with illness, seeks refuge at an abbey. In the midst of a battle, a dying French Lord, Melun, tells the defecting English lords they have joined the wrong side. He warns them to return to the English armies because Louis plans to kill them if the French win. 

Hubert seeks out the Bastard with news that King John has been poisoned. The nobles bring John’s son, Henry, to the abbey to witness John’s death. The Bastard has lost much of his army, but the opposing side finally takes Pandolph's advice and stops their attack. Prince Henry, now King, orders the burial of his father while the Bastard proclaims peace throughout England.

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