Since King John is a history play–and this shouldn’t be a surprise from our earlier coverage of the Henry VI/Richard III plays–we know there are going to be some facts that are “tweaked” for dramatic purposes:
Philip Faulconbridge is recognized as Richard I’s bastard son.
Many historians now see Richard I as, if not a homosexual, then definitely a bisexual… he had a wife, but no legitimate children
This was a Philip of Cognac, who Richard supposedly acknowledged as his bastard son. This information comes from Holinshed, and there is not historical support for this Philip, and there is certainly no information about the bastard’s mother.
Austria is recognized as the man who killed Richard I.
Leopold of Austria had captured Richard in 1192. Because Leopold kept Richard in captivity, and Catholic crusaders were simply NOT supposed to be treated that way, Leopold was excommunicated by Pope Celestine III. Leopold handed Richard off to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor. Leopold, meanwhile, suffered a crushed foot when his horse fell on him during a tournament in 1194… and he died that year from gangrene.
However, Richard I dies in 1199; John becomes King of England, and the play begins.
What? Then how did Richard die?
In 1199, Richard was laying siege to Chalus in Limoges with the Viscount of Limoges trapped inside. When on a patrol, Richard was hit by an arrow. And like Leopold, Richard was struck down with gangrene and died.
Did the Viscount fire the arrow? Doubtful. Regardless, it seems that Shakespeare combines Leopold with Limoges to create a villain for our play.
Constance complains of being “husbandless” when the marriage agreement between Blanche and Louis is drawn up (III.i.14).
While it’s true that Constance had a marriage annulled in 1198, she had married Guy de Thouars before Blanche and Louis were married in 1200.
Pandulph the papal legate arrives immediately after Blanche and Louis’ marriage.
While the marriage takes place in 1200, the legate didn’t appear until 1211.
Philip is offended by John’s characterization of the Pope as an “Italian priest” (III.i.153).
When Philip failed to reverse his annulment of his marriage to Ingeborg, France was penalized by a paper interdict in 1200, and all public worship ended. Philip caved and took Ingeborg back in that year (though he ended up keeping her a prisoner in a convent).
It wasn’t until 1208 that England was placed under an interdict, and 1209 that John was excommunicated (penalties only threatened by Pandulph).
After this threat of excommunication, France goes to war against England, Constance dies, then (three days later) Eleanor dies.
All of the above happened BEFORE the papal legate’s arrival. Eleanor died in 1204. The war France declares on England began in 1202. Constance died in 1201.
King John dies under questionable circumstances
John died in 1216, and while there were some stories that he had been poisoned, it is unlikely that it was foul play.