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History Illustrations: King John

King John was very much in his brother Richard's shadow

King Henry II had four sons, Henry, Geoffrey, Richard and John. There was a lot of rivalry between them and Henry settled it (he thought) by having his eldest son crowned king during Henry II’s lifetime. He was known as the Young King Henry. John, as the youngest, was sent away to study, with no expectations of him ever becoming King John.

Richard the Lionheart statue

Unfortunately the Young King Henry died of a fever in 1183, and Geoffrey fell from his horse in a tournament in 1186, was trampled and died.┬áSo when Henry II died in 1189, Richard became king. Richard the Lionheart has passed into legend as a great hero, but he wasn’t a great king. He only spend six months of his ten-year reign in England and never learned English.

King JohnBut he was still a hard act to follow. Richard died in 1199 and was succeeded by John. Now history has not been kind to King John, and when I began to research for my book Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John, I expected to disprove some of it. Imagine my surprise to find out it was all true!

King John in Richard's shadowMy talented artist Carrie Francis drew this illustration for the book with John in Richard’s shadow. I think it’s inspired. As well as all his disadvantages of birth and upbringing, experts now believe John was bipolar and possibly autistic.

John went from being the youngest son, expecting nothing and nothing expected of him, to King of England and the Angevin empire. His older brothers, and to some extent his father, had set him a bad example of how to be a king. It needed firm control, shrewd distribution of power to the right men in the right places, and cunning to play the political games.

Ann Marie Thomas authorAnn Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, and book two Alien Secrets, are out now. Follow her at

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