To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet...
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
John has ascended to the throne after the death of Richard the Lion-Hearted, but Arthur has a rival claim to the throne that is supported by the King of France. To protect his reign, King John sends Philip the Bastard (the illegitimate son of King Richard) to lead an army against France. At a stalemate, King John proposes peace with France by offering the French King his niece, Blanche, in marriage.
The Pope's representative Pandulph arrives to settle a dispute over the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the result is King John's excommunication. Fearing excommunication himself, the French King Philip breaks his treaty with England and resumes his battle with King John's army. During the conflict, France's ally Arthur is captured and ordered to be executed. But Hubert, who is charged with that task, instead hides Arthur from King John. His efforts are for naught when Arthur falls to his death during an escape attempt, and Arthur's death—blamed on John—causes dissension among his supporters.
Meanwhile, John offers to accept the Pope's wishes in the hope that Pandulph will help negotiate peace with France. But King Philip now has his own aspirations for the English throne through Blanche, his new wife. While France initially has support from King John's deserters, the English renegades return to the service of King John and force France's retreat. Pandulph negotiates a peace between France and England, but King John—who has been poisoned—does not live to enjoy it. John's son, Prince Henry, is proclaimed King Henry III.