Written by Chris Riley.
June 1215, Runnymede, England. Perhaps the most famous medieval document is being signed by King John of England after years of turmoil, revolting barons and a country in dire need of financial reform but, what was Magna Carta and more importantly, what did it all mean?
Portrait of King John out hunting SOURCE: The British Library
The evil King John
For almost two decades, England had been ruled by John, the youngest son of the great king Henry II and for two decades, he had done a terrible job. Taxing his people, arguing with the Church and, insulting his lords and barons, John had set himself up for a real royal failure.
Following an interdict placed on England by Pope Innocent III and constant wars with the French, John was in a dire position. Baronial tensions reached fever pitch in the summer of 1215, when his leading barons, led by Robert Fitzwalter, were in full scale rebellion against him demanding change. Meeting his disgruntled barons at Runnymede, near Windsor, John would be forced to sign ‘The Great Charter’ also known as Magna Carta, drafted by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The charter set out to protect the barons rights to a fair trial, legal representation but mainly focused on the perceived ‘ancient rights’ of both the king and the lords of the land. Magna Carta also saw clauses which limited the king’s right to tax the church too heavily but ultimately, nether side intended on keeping their promises.
19th-century recreation of King John signing Magna Carta SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons
The 1st Barons war
Magna Carta was quickly signed and sealed and on 15th June, copies were sent out around England as a symbol of its authenticity but, John would seek help from the one person no one expected, the Pope. Pope Innocent III had spent the last 15 years in near constant conflict with the English king but, as controller over most of central Italy, the Pope saw Magna Carta as a potential threat to his supreme power and had it annulled. With everyone’s feathers well and truly ruffled, the baron’s decided it was time to look elsewhere for a king, turning to the old enemy, France. The barons invited the son of French King Philip II, (unsurprisingly he was called Louis) to invade and take the thrown from the idiot that was John but, before long, John was dead, putting Louis’ potential English throne into question.
John succumbed to dysentery in October of 1216, leaving his 9 year old son Henry to inherit the throne, and on 28th October was crowned Henry III of England. The death of the hated John, left the barons with a decision, continue to support the French prince Louis or, look to control the young King Henry and Mould him into a more suitable king for England. The Barons chose the latter, having Magna Carta reissuedin 1217, with many of the more radical clauses removed but, there was still the matter of Louis to contend with. Louis still liked the idea of being king of England and it took a large royalist effort to beat Louis at the battle of Lincoln on 20th May 1217.
Oil painting of Henry III unknown artist SOURCE: Englishmonarchs.co.uk
The minority of Henry III and 1225 reissue
With John dead, Louis back in France and one of their own (William Marshal acted as regent to Henry) in charge, the barons were ready to start to settle down. In the first few years of Henry’s reign he was a virtual puppet of Marshal, who wanted to see the rights of his baronial friends upheld by both Henry and future kings, leading to yet another reissue of the great charter in 1225. Where as the 1215 and 1217 versions of Magna Carta were little more than peace treaties, the 1225 version was willingly signed by an adult king who saw this as an opportunity to bring peace to his kingdom.
Magna Carta would go on to form the basis of ‘common law’ in England but that’s certainly not where the legal story of the 13th century ends. The Great Charter’s lesser known ‘little brother’ the Provisions of Oxford, would follow half a century after with even more far reaching implications. But why is Magna Carta so historically important? The charter was the first time in English and possibly European history, that a king was kept in check by a legally binding document. Yes, there had been disagreements and outright rebellions against reigning monarchs but John, was the first ruler to have his divine right restrained legally and most importantly, Magna Carta would become part of coronation oaths for future monarchs in England keeping rulers bound to the law and later, parliament.