The Magna Carta was originally intended as a peace treaty between the king and his barons, but it became the cornerstone of liberty in the English-speaking world.

The Magna Carta, signed by John of England
The Magna Carta, signed by John of England

English kings became more powerful and influential after 1066, through the Norman system of centralised government and the acquisition of Normandy.

King John of England

King John was a skilled politician and a forceful administrator but his cruelty and deceit made him unpopular. He was suspicious of others.

He also sought to force loyalty from his chief subjects through coercion. He took hostages from the nobles—usually their wives and children.

However, John had lost most of the Plantagenet or Angevin Empire (Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Brittany) to Philip II of France.

John needed more money for armies to recover these French possessions so he frequently levied heavy taxes upon his subjects.

Philip II defeated the English at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214.

Runnymede

King John signs the Magna Carta
King John signs the Magna Carta

The barons had enough so they rebelled on 3 May 1215 and captured London. John had no choice so he accepted their demands. They forced John to sign the Magna Carta (Great Charter) on 15 June 1215 at Runnymede, near Windsor. The Magna Carta limited his authority, and protected others from abuses of royal power.

It explained the barons’ feudal obligations and freedom of the Church.

Certain taxes should be levied only with the common consent of the country.

No free man would be punished or imprisoned without prior judgement according to the law of the land.

Justice would not be denied, delayed or sold. Free men should have the right to judgement by their peers.

A committee of 25 barons would monitor the king’s actions and reprimand him book if he broke any of the provisions in the charter.

The Magna Carta gave a voice, a sense of community among the barons, and accepting responsibility for the whole realm.

John of England tomb effigy
John of England tomb effigy

John had no intention of keeping his promise as he regarded the Magna Carta as unacceptable, so he appealed to Pope Innocent III to declare the charter illegal. He even promised to go on a Crusade. The Pope agreed so John declared war on his barons three months later.

Magnates appeal to France to provide a competent ruler, so dauphin Louis (later Louis VIII) invaded. John was unable to fight off the French and Louis was proclaimed king in May 1216. Louis ruled on right of his wife, Blanche of Castile (a granddaughter of Henry II).

John was forced to flee from London and travelled from one safe haven to another. (He lost the crown jewels en-route at a marshy area, known as the Wash, when the tide came in unexpectedly.)

John died from dysentery on 18 October 1216 after consuming peaches and beer. England’s senior noblemen appointed regents who ruled until Henry III came of age. Henry was hastily anointed and crowned at Gloucester on 28 October.

Constitution

The Magna Carta was re-issued in 1216 to regain control. The barons saw no point in supporting a foreign king, so Louis was forced to concede defeat and withdraw in September 1217.

It was again re-issued in 1217 and 1255, and it eventually became part of the English constitution. It was a stabilising force in an increasingly unstable political situation.

The Magna Carta was not the birth certificate of freedom, but death of despotism.

Sources

Crofton, Ian, The Kings and Queens of England, Quercus, London, 2006

Danziger, Danny, & Gillingham, John, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta, Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), New York, 2005

Erickson, Carolly, Royal Panoply, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2003

Fraser, Antonia [Editor], The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, (reprinted 2005)

Morris, Marc, A Great and Terrible King Edward I and the Forging of Britain, Windmill Books [Random House Group Limited], London, 2008

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: At The Edge of the World 3000BC-AD1603, Volume 1, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2000

Wilkinson, Philip, The British Monarchy for Dummies, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester, 2006

© 2009 Carolyn Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 12 June 2009.

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