It is perhaps unjust to call King John (1177-1216) a ‘glorious historical figure’, but he was nothing if not prominent, and lived his life apparently oblivious to his woeful shortcomings. John had a hunger for power that greatly exceeded his actual abilities, and unsuccessfully tried to seize the throne of England from his brother, Richard the Lionheart, during the latter’s imprisonment. John became king in 1199, but his territories in France instantly rebelled, and tried to have Richard’s son, Arthur, crowned king. Despite having the upper hand in 1200, John negotiated a weak peace, earning himself the nickname, ‘Softsword’.
Inevitably, John’s failure to capitalize on his strong position and innate lack of military skill saw him lose Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and part of Poitou by 1206, earning himself the alternative nickname, ‘Lackland’. He attempted to win them back, raising vast sums for the military campaign through punitive taxation and exploiting his feudal rights over others. John’s generally-tyrannical behavior led to civil war in 1215, and the already-unpopular John was humiliatingly forced to sign the Magna Carta the same year, giving the barons more rights and reducing his power. John thus became a pioneer of democracy, much against his will.
However, John soon went back on the promises enshrined in Magna Carta, and war broke out yet again. Things showed no signs of letting up, but in September 1216, John contracted dysentery at King’s Lynn. Ironically, the war was tilting slightly in his favor, but by October John was so ill he was unable to leave Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire. On the 18th or 19th, John died of intestinal inflammation and terrible diarrhea. The chronicler Matthew Paris gave him this wonderful epitaph in the 1230s: ‘foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John’.