The events in King John take place in the thirteenth century, well before Shakespeare’s other English history plays. After the death of John’s brother, Richard I, John rules England.
John’s young nephew, Arthur, has a claim to the throne and is supported by the French. At first, a proposed marriage between the French crown prince and John’s niece, Blanche, calms Anglo-French tensions. Then the pope, in a dispute over recognizing an archbishop, excommunicates John and backs Arthur’s claim.
After war erupts, John captures Arthur and orders his death. Arthur’s guardian, Hubert, prepares to burn out Arthur’s eyes, but then spares him. Arthur dies leaping from the prison wall. Arthur’s mother Constance grieves inconsolably.
Meanwhile, French forces reach England. John submits to the pope to gain his aid. Rebellious English nobles join the French, but return to John when they learn the French prince plans to kill them. English forces under the bastard son of Richard I expel the French, but a monk poisons King John, whose son becomes Henry III.