Like Father, Unlike Son: How Similar Were King John and King Henry III? | History Hit

Like Father, Unlike Son: How Similar Were King John and King Henry III?

John Paul Davis

28 Sep 2021
King Henry III (left), King John (right)
Image Credit: Public Domain

When Philip II of France conquered large swathes of the Angevin Empire in 1204, King John was doomed to endure twelve years of conflict both home and abroad. His son and heir, Henry III, who came to the throne at the height of a civil war, would also inherit such consequences.

In the year following John’s premature death from dysentery, as the spectre of defeat loomed large, those loyal to the young Henry pulled off the unthinkable. By September 1217, the First Barons’ War was over and government restored.

king john

British school portrait of King John.

Image Credit: National Trust / CC

A boy of just 9 on his accession, Henry III was the first minor to rule England post-1066. A kind, humble lad whose personality was still developing, Henry had enjoyed a good relationship with John even though the pair were often apart.

Under the guidance of his great regent, William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, and later his justiciar Hubert de Burgh, Henry avoided his father’s mistakes throughout his minority (1216-27). Yet, as future years showed, the memories and repercussions of John’s reign contributed significantly to Henry III’s personality and kingship, including two more civil wars.

Here are 5 ways in which father and son were alike and 5 ways they differed.


1. A preference for absolute kingship over constitutional monarchy

Though Henry accepted the realities of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest during his early kingship, his frustrations boiled to the surface during his majority.

Throughout his reign, inconsistent adherence to the charters caused friction among the magnates, contributing to the Marshal War (1233-34) and the Second Barons’ War (1263-67). John had famously faced war with his barons after obtaining Pope Innocent III’s help in quashing Magna Carta just three months after events at Runnymede.

2. Nostalgia for the lost ancestral lands

Despite losing large parts of the Angevin Empire in 1204, John launched a counteroffensive a year later, regaining Poitou and parts of Anjou. Sadly for John, this was the pinnacle of his success. The Earl of Salisbury’s razing of French ships at Damme in 1213 was followed a year later by John’s humiliation at the Battle of Bouvines.

From his late teens onwards, Henry’s close relations with his tutor and advisor, Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, ensured John’s dream of regaining the lost empire did not end completely.

Though Henry’s younger brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, enjoyed some success in Gascony and Poitou in 1225, attempts to regain the ancestral lands in 1230, 1242 and 1253 proved unsuccessful.

3. A tendency to promote foreigners over Englishmen

Though both kings have received much criticism – contemporary and more recent – for their willingness to favour ‘aliens’, their actions were logical. Foreigners were often the target of xenophobic attacks and sought royal protection in exchange for loyalty.

Henry’s spoiling of foreign favourites was another pivotal contributor to the Marshal War (1233-34) and the Second Barons’ War (1263-67).

4. A familial resemblance

Both men appear to have been about 5” 6, bearded and of solid build. Their effigies may indicate a facial similarity; however, this is uncertain. A rare description of Henry implied a drooping eyelid.

5. Sheltered upbringing

The youngest of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s infamous ‘Devil’s Brood’, John made it to the throne after a long and unlikely journey. Such was his lack of influence his father jokingly labelled him ‘Lackland’.

While Henry was the eldest son and de facto heir, a combination of his peaceful upbringing, youth, and strong government worked against him. Philip II of France even recalled that John’s children wielded far less power than he ever had.

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1. Religion

John was often cruel to those of the religious life, including the Cistercians, and frequently took God’s name in vain. Chequered relations with the papacy, notably his refusal to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, saw Innocent III place an interdict on England in 1208, followed by excommunication the following year.

Unlike his father, Henry III was devoutly religious and enjoyed far better relations with his prelates. Henry’s love of mass has drawn comparisons with St Edward the Confessor. An oratory chapel appears to have been added alongside his chambers at the Tower of London to allow him to hear mass from his bed.

2. Art and building

Though an impressive revamp of Kenilworth Castle and construction of Odiham Castle are among the highlights of John’s building accomplishments, Henry was far more devoted to such matters. A patron of the arts, Henry commissioned many fine decorations at the Palace of Westminster and other royal sites.

Major revamps of the royal castles also occurred on his watch, including Dover, Windsor, and the inner wall of the Tower of London (at the time, the outer wall). Gothic cathedrals flourished during his reign, and his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey must rank as his crowning achievement.

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3. Travels

John was often somewhat restless and rarely stayed long in one place. Henry also enjoyed travelling but preferred longer stays.

4. Attitudes towards administration

A notable habit John inherited from his father was his energy for administrative purposes. After England suffered from Richard I’s ten-year absence on crusade, John adopted a far more hands-on approach to government.

Thanks mainly to the circumstances of his youth, Henry lacked confidence and left much of the work to his advisors. Following the embarrassment of the Marshal War of 1233-34, in which his frequent disregard for the charters and opposition to his enrichment of foreigners led to full-scale rebellion, Henry sacked his chief advisors and vowed to rule as his own chief minister.

Despite criticisms of his nepotism and a lack of resistance to papal policy, 1234-58 were largely peaceful and prosperous.

5. Loyalty to his family

Whereas John was a frequent adulterer who fathered at least five illegitimate children, including two with married noblewomen, Henry was faithful to Eleanor of Provence and a doting father to their five children. A particularly touching story concerns his providing a pet goat for his daughter Katherine, who appears to have been a deaf-mute.

When Edward I returned from the Holy Land to learn of his father’s death, he showed great sadness, even compared to the loss of his son, noting that while a man can have many sons, he only has one father.

John Paul Davis is the international bestselling author of eleven thriller novels and six works of nonfiction. Several of his books have been bestsellers, including The Templar Agenda (UK Top 20) and The Cortés Trilogy (US Top 20 and UK Top 40). He was educated at Loughborough University and lives in Warwickshire. King John, Henry III and England’s Lost Civil War by John Paul Davis was published in July 2021 by Pen & Sword.

John Paul Davis