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The Road to the Magna Carta of 1215

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An idealised depiction of King John placing his royal seal on the Magna Carta on 15th June 1215 at Runnymede.

An idealised depiction of King John placing his royal seal on the Magna Carta on 15th June 1215 at Runnymede.

"…the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot." Judge Lord Denning (1899-1999.)

Liberties For Loyalty

Norman ruler King William I, the Conqueror, (c.1028-1087) enjoyed a level of unchallenged power which other rulers envied. The barons and the clergy were subservient to the monarch and the Pope of the day ceded direct power over religious matters to William.

However, his son Henry I (c.1068-1135) was forced to issue a Charter of Liberties in 1100 which restored some privileges to the church and barons as an inducement to support his right to reign because it was being challenged by his elder brother Robert II, Duke of Normandy (1051-1134.)

The civil war of 1139-1148 was fought between William the Conqueror’s grandson Count Stephen of Blois (c.1092-1154) of the House of Angevin and Empress Matilda (1102-1167) King Henry I’s daughter, for the English throne. Stephen, rather like Henry I offered his barons and ecclesiastical bodies more liberties for their loyalty.

In 1154 Stephen was succeeded by Matilda’s son Henry II (1133-1189.) He issued a solemn charter at the start of his reign that promised the restoration of all of Henry I’s charter’s liberties. Henry II’s rule lasted thirty five years.

His eldest surviving son Richard I, the Lionheart, was aware of the barons dissatisfaction that rulership was still defined by the principle of vis et voluntas or force and will and this effectively placed the monarch above the laws of the land. Richard set off to fight in the Crusades in the Holy Land and during his ten year reign the baron's grievances festered.

King John's Reign

In 1199 Richard I's brother John, also known as John Lackland because Henry II had joked that as a younger son he would inherit little, succeeded to the throne. He continued with the principle of vis et voluntas and earned himself a reputation as an uncompromising and cruel king. By 1204 he had lost substantial territories in France which was felt bitterly. Any military victories he'd enjoyed were primarily managed by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine who was a far better strategist.

His later reign was marked by expensive and unsuccessful campaigns to reclaim the French lands he’d lost. To pay for these incursions the taxation levels in England rose to eye-wateringly high rates. When John and his army suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Bouvines in Flanders on the 27th July 1214 and John paid compensation to the victorious King Philippe II of France (1165-1223) the English barons took action to control their king.

King John. The drawing was taken from his tomb at Worcester Cathedral.

King John. The drawing was taken from his tomb at Worcester Cathedral.

The English Barons Versus The King

Whilst a number of barons wanted to declare war on John, they were persuaded to use words rather than weapons by leading figures Robert Fitzwalter (c.1182-1235) and William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (1146-1219) Pembroke remained loyal to John throughout this episode. Fitzwalter demanded that King John comply with the 1100 Charter of Liberties and that in future he must seek the counsel of his noblemen. The barons vowed to “stand fast for the liberty of the church and the realm.”

Realising that he could not ignore the barons King John held a meeting in January 1215 in London to discuss possible reforms. Fitzwalter and the barons presented him with their own Charter of Liberties. Both sides petitioned Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) for his support but as they waited for a response John assembled troops in case of war. The barons prepared their own army in Northampton and denounced John.

The king offered to petition the Pope again so that His Holiness could act as the supreme judge between parties. The barons rejected this idea because they suspected that the king and Pope Innocent III would assist one another to achieve the results that they desired, at the baron’s expense. John ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228) to negotiate with the barons and revise the 1100 charter.

One of only four remaining exemplifications of the original 1215 Magna Carta.

One of only four remaining exemplifications of the original 1215 Magna Carta.

Magna Carta

The Articles of Barons of the 10th June 1215 was designed to protect the church’s rights and to guarantee human liberties. It stipulated that the barons should not be imprisoned and if they were incarcerated that justice would be readily and fairly available to them. The document limited the amount of cash that the monarch received from taxation and the ruler was no longer above the law.

On 15th June 1215 the king placed the royal great seal of beeswax and resin on the vellum sheeted document at Runnymede near to Windsor Castle but he was far from enthusiastic about its contents. Within days it became official and it was renamed the Magna Carta. In English, the Great Charter.

At least thirteen copies or exemplifications were made of the 1215 charter and these were hastily dispatched to cathedrals around the country to be read to the public twice a year. Four exemplifications remain today. Two are held at the British Library, one is at Lincoln Cathedral and the fourth is in Salisbury Cathedral.

On the 19th June twenty five barons agreed that if the king failed to comply with the Magna Carta within forty days of being told of an error in his actions then the barons were legally entitled to seize royal properties.

In August 1215 Pope Innocent III annulled Magna Carta because King John claimed that been forced to sign it and so he was not obliged to adhere to it. This led to war and the future King Louis VIII of France (1187-1226) was offered England’s crown by the barons if he supported their cause. He accepted. During the subsequent battles King John died of dysentery on 18th October 1216 at Newark in Nottinghamshire. He was buried at Worcester Cathedral.

The unassuming meadow where the Magna Carta was sealed. After a false start, the document secured greater civil rights for the people of England.

The unassuming meadow where the Magna Carta was sealed. After a false start, the document secured greater civil rights for the people of England.

Magna Carta Liberatum

His son and successor Henry III (1207-1272) reissued the Magna Carta in 1216 after he’d negotiated the removal of twenty one of its more extreme measures. At least fifty percent of the country was under the barons’ control by this time. Louis of France renounced any rights to the English throne and returned home.

In September 1217 small amendments were made to the 1216 version and this document received the name of Magna Carta Libertatum. (Great Charter of Liberty.) The charter soon became a familiar part of common law and is still celebrated as a victory for civil rights over oppression.

Sources

Royal Family Website: https://www.royal.uk/john-lackland

The British Library: https://www.bl.uk/magna-carta

About Britain: https://www.aboutbritain.com/articles/13th-century.asp

Unofficial Royalty: https://www.unofficialroyalty.com/king-john-of-england/

Encyclopedia Britannica:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-king-of-England

https://www.britannica.com/place/United-Kingdom/John-1199-1216#ref482766

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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