King John reluctantly put his seal to the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215 to make peace with his rebellious barons.

King John by an unknown artist.

The Magna Carta outlined royal powers and the rights of barons and freemen and it became the most famous document and the cornerstone of liberty in the English-speaking world.

800th Anniversary celebrations to mark this historic milestone took place in 2015.

English kings became more powerful and influential since William the Conqueror invaded in 1066, with the Norman system of centralised government and the acquisition of Normandy.

John’s father, Henry II, had expanded the Angevin or Plantagenet  Empire, which included half of France, including territories through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152.

His older brother Richard I, known as the Lionheart, inherited the English throne but he spent most of his time in Aquitaine or on a Crusade.

Richard died without leaving an heir in 1199 so John finally became King.

John became one of England’s most unpopular monarchs, despite being a skilled politician and a forceful administrator but he was cruel, deceitful and rather 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.

John lost Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Brittany to Philip II of France, so he needed money to fund armies to recover these French territories, and levied heavy taxes to pay for them.

The barons decided when Philip II defeated the English at the Battle of Bouvines in northern France in 1214 was the last straw.

By now, the barons were now really fed up with King John’s abuses of royal power so they rebelled on 3 May 1215 and captured London.

John had no choice so he reluctantly 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.

One of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, now held in the British Library

It also 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 judgment 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 reprimanded him 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 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 like his brother.

The Pope agreed so John declared war on his barons three months later.

The barons appealed to France to provide a competent ruler, so the Dauphin (later Louis VIII) invaded. 

John was unable to fight off the French and Louis was proclaimed king in May 1216. Louis ruled by right of his wife, Blanche of Castile (a granddaughter of Henry II).

He was forced to flee from London and travelled from one safe haven to another. (He allegedly 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, leaving his nine-year-old son Henry as his successor. 

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 barons reissued the Magna Carta in 1216 to regain control of the kingdom, as they saw no point in supporting a foreign king, forcing Louis to concede defeat.

Louis withdrew his troops 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 the death of despotism.

The Australian Parliament in Canberra holds the 1297 edition of the Magna Carta, which is the heart of Australian democracy—the only one found in the southern hemisphere.

Sources

Commonwealth of Australia, Australia’s Magna Carta, Parliament House, Canberra, 2010

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

© 2020 Carolyn Cash

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