John, the youngest of five sons of King Henry II of England and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, was at first not expected to inherit significant lands. Following the failed rebellion of his elder brothers between 1173 and 1174, however, John became Henry's favourite child. He was appointed the Lord of Ireland in 1177 and given lands in England and on the continent. John's elder brothers William, Henry and Geoffrey died young; by the time Richard I became king in 1189, John was a potential heir to the throne. John unsuccessfully attempted a rebellion against Richard's royal administrators whilst his brother was participating in the Third Crusade. Despite this, after Richard died in 1199, John was proclaimed King of England, and came to an agreement with Philip II of France to recognise John's possession of the continental Angevin lands at the peace treaty of Le Goulet in 1200.
When war with France broke out again in 1202, John achieved early victories, but shortages of military resources and his treatment of Norman, Breton, and Anjou nobles resulted in the collapse of his empire in northern France in 1204. John spent much of the next decade attempting to regain these lands, raising huge revenues, reforming his armed forces and rebuilding continental alliances. John's judicial reforms had a lasting impact on the English common law system, as well as providing an additional source of revenue. An argument with Pope Innocent III led to John's excommunication in 1209, a dispute finally settled by the king in 1213. John's attempt to defeat Philip in 1214 failed due to the French victory over John's allies at the battle of Bouvines. When he returned to England, John faced a rebellion by many of his barons, who were unhappy with his fiscal policies and his treatment of many of England's most powerful nobles. Although both John and the barons agreed to the Magna Carta peace treaty in 1215, neither side complied with its conditions. Civil war broke out shortly afterwards, with the barons aided by Louis of France. It soon descended into a stalemate. John died of dysentery contracted whilst on campaign in eastern England during late 1216; supporters of his son Henry III went on to achieve victory over Louis and the rebel barons the following year.
Contemporary chroniclers were mostly critical of John's performance as king, and his reign has since been the subject of significant debate and periodic revision by historians from the 16th century onwards. Historian Jim Bradbury has summarised the current historical opinion of John's positive qualities, observing that John is today usually considered a "hard-working administrator, an able man, an able general". Nonetheless, modern historians agree that he also had many faults as king, including what historian Ralph Turner describes as "distasteful, even dangerous personality traits", such as pettiness, spitefulness, and cruelty. These negative qualities provided extensive material for fiction writers in the Victorian era, and John remains a recurring character within Western popular culture, primarily as a villain in films and stories depicting the Robin Hood legends.
John was born to Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine on 24 December 1166. Henry had inherited significant territories along the Atlantic seaboard—Anjou, Normandy and England—and expanded his empire by conquering Brittany. Henry married the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine, who reigned over the Duchy of Aquitaine and had a tenuous claim to Toulouse and Auvergne in southern France, in addition to being the former wife of Louis VII of France. The result was the Angevin Empire, named after Henry's paternal title as Count of Anjou and, more specifically, its seat in Angers.[nb 2] The Empire, however, was inherently fragile: although all the lands owed allegiance to Henry, the disparate parts each had their own histories, traditions and governance structures. As one moved south through Anjou and Aquitaine, the extent of Henry's power in the provinces diminished considerably, scarcely resembling the modern concept of an empire at all. Some of the traditional ties between parts of the empire such as Normandy and England were slowly dissolving over time. It was unclear what would happen to the empire on Henry's death. Although the custom of primogeniture, under which an eldest son would inherit all his father's lands, was slowly becoming more widespread across Europe, it was less popular amongst the Norman kings of England. Most believed that Henry would divide the empire, giving each son a substantial portion, and hoping that his children would continue to work together as allies after his death. To complicate matters, much of the Angevin empire was held by Henry only as a vassal of the King of France of the rival line of the House of Capet. Henry had often allied himself with the Holy Roman Emperor against France, making the feudal relationship even more challenging.
Shortly after his birth, John was passed from Eleanor into the care of a wet nurse, a traditional practice for medieval noble families. Eleanor then left for Poitiers, the capital of Aquitaine, and sent John and his sister Joan north to Fontevrault Abbey. This may have been done with the aim of steering her youngest son, with no obvious inheritance, towards a future ecclesiastical career. Eleanor spent the next few years conspiring against her husband Henry and neither parent played a part in John's very early life. John was probably, like his brothers, assigned a magister whilst he was at Fontevrault, a teacher charged with his early education and with managing the servants of his immediate household; John was later taught by Ranulf de Glanvill, a leading English administrator. John spent some time as a member of the household of his eldest living brother Henry the Young King, where he probably received instruction in hunting and military skills.
John grew up to be around 5 ft 5 in (1.65 m) tall, relatively short, with a "powerful, barrel-chested body" and dark red hair; he looked to contemporaries like an inhabitant of Poitou. John enjoyed reading and, unusually for the period, built up a travelling library of books. He enjoyed gambling, in particular at backgammon, and was an enthusiastic hunter, even by medieval standards. He liked music, although not songs. John would become a "connoisseur of jewels", building up a large collection, and became famous for his opulent clothes and also, according to French chroniclers, for his fondness for bad wine. As John grew up, he became known for sometimes being "genial, witty, generous and hospitable"; at other moments, he could be jealous, over-sensitive and prone to fits of rage, "biting and gnawing his fingers" in anger.[nb 3]
During John's early years, Henry attempted to resolve the question of his succession. Henry the Young King had been crowned King of England in 1170, but was not given any formal powers by his father; he was also promised Normandy and Anjou as part of his future inheritance. Richard was to be appointed the Count of Poitou with control of Aquitaine, whilst Geoffrey was to become the Duke of Brittany. At this time it seemed unlikely that John would ever inherit substantial lands, and he was jokingly nicknamed "Lackland" by his father.