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King John was the son of one of medieval England’s greatest kings, Henry II, and the younger brother of the heroic Richard the Lionhearted. The last, and many felt, least of Henry’s sons, little was expected of him. But he out-lasted his four brothers and with the guidance of his brilliant mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, became ruler of England and of the many rich territories his father had conquered in France.

At the beginning of the play the French ambassador, Chatillon, brings a challenge from the French king, to which King John replies with a promise of war. A pair of brothers arrive from the country, appealing to the king, in his capacity as chief justice, to resolve a dispute: Robert Faulconbridge, although the younger son, claims that he is his father’s rightful heir, saying that his older brother Philip is a bastard, in fact, the son of Richard the Lionhearted. Philip is adopted into the royal family and knighted, to his delight.

In France the forces of England confront the French king, Philip, his son the Dauphin, their allay the Duke of Austria, and Arthur, the young son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey, who’s claim to the throne of England is supported by France. England and France besiege the wealthy fortified town of Angiers, the English in the name of John, the French in the name of Arthur.  The citizens propose that rather than rather than fight, the two powers should unite, with the Dauphin marrying Blanche, the niece of King John, a solution both sides joyfully accept.

Arthur’s mother, the Lady Constance, is furious at the new amity, which pushes aside Arthur’s claim. Cardinal Pandulph, the papal legate, is also against the peace pact, and works to restore the former hatred between the kings.

The fighting resumes, with the English, led by the Bastard, victorious. They capture Arthur and return to England, leaving his heartbroken mother in France. Pandulph encourages a war expedition to England, promising the Dauphin that the populace will rally to him because surely John will have his young rival killed, revolting his own subjects.

In London John orders his faithful henchman Hubert to blind and then kill Arthur, but the boy is able to talk Hubert out of it. Hubert reports to John that he has carried out his orders and the king’s lords desert him in disgust. Arthur tries to flee from the Tower of London, but slips and falls, and dies. The Lords find his body, and renounce their loyalty to John and go to join the invading Dauphin.

Initial victories go to the French, but at last the English lords return to support King John. But he has been poisoned by a monk, and dies, leaving his son to ascend the throne as Henry III, with the true-hearted Bastard to guide him.

Synopsis by Beverly Bullock.

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