Magna Carta: The Great Charter

Magna Carta was a charter of liberties given in England by King John in 1215 rather than face civil war. It was intended as a short term measure, and the barons who exacted the charter were small in number compared to their peers, many of whom stayed neutral. However, it was reissued by following kings and transformed by popular support into both a symbol of liberty and a bastion used by the English against oppression, far exceeding the intentions of any of the original parties.

Key seventeenth century laws such as Habeas Corpus (barring imprisonment without the judgement of the law) took the Magna Carta as their foundation. Indeed, the charter even took on international significance when nations like the US used constitutions deriving from it.

King John is seen to Fail

English king’s Henry I, Stephen and Henry II had issued charters to their subjects giving promises, but these had not been at the expense of royal power. The Magna Carta would be different. The relationship between the crown of England and the leading nobles had been altered in the decades before John’s rule by the development of royal administration, and some nobles felt they’d lost power. They were also being squeezed for ever more taxation, first for the Third Crusade, then for the ransom of King Richard I. When King John came to power at the end of the twelfth century he faced a resurgent French monarchy and attacks upon his lands on the continent, meaning more money was needed for military affairs.

John pushed the Angevin administration even further.

It tried to control Barons by keeping them in debt, draining them of cash at every possible point of contact. John also preferred mercenaries and specialists to barons, and restricted their access to positions of power. In 1199, 1201 and 1205 John had to give promises to his barons, but by the latter date John had lost Normandy and was associated with failure.

While Richard I had also used the Angevin government to squeeze cash from the Barons, he had military success to show for the expense.

In 1209 King John lost the support of the papacy, when he was excommunicated over an argument about appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury. John used his excommunication as a cover to seize church land, and raise funds by selling it back to the church. These sums were partly spent on a navy, which had some success, but were also used by disgruntled barons to withhold support. John then came to terms with the Pope, handing England over and receiving it back as a fief of the Papacy. In 1213 Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, rounded on the excommunicated monarch and indicated support for an official granting of liberties. John’s attempt to campaign in Normandy in the same year was stopped by Barons refusing to aid him, and John had to promise reforms to gain support.

The Rebels Move

In 1214, John returned to the continent with an army and his navy. He had little success, and returned to England under the terms of a truce. John had been reduced to getting letters from the Pope to ask for malcontents to support him. For many nobles John was a failure, a coward, and a constant financial drain. 1214 was the chance they needed, and a number gathered under the leadership of Robert FitzWalter. It’s important to stress that the rebels were relatively few in number, and contained many lords who’d previously only used the law to their advantage. Of course, it’s also important to stress that John found few supporters: many Barons stayed quiet.

Magna Carta

By the end of 1214, a meeting had been arranged between John and the malcontents, and the king began to prepare his defences. They met on January 6th 1215, but nothing was agreed. The rebels cited in their aims a charter once given by Henry I, implying that the laws of Henry II and the methods of Angevin government which had developed since were faulty and should be removed. Angevin government had certainly developed under Henry II, Richard I and John, becoming more bureaucratic, effective and complex. In early 1215 the Barons looked for a legal solution from the Pope, but it soon became apparent that the Pope was firmly on John’s side: giving England had worked.

War began in May 1215, but the rebels weren’t initially successful, failing to win the siege Northampton Castle. However, on May 17th London let them in. This was a huge propaganda victory which terrified John and swayed some neutrals. Consequently, John entered into discussions and a text called the Articles of the Barons was first presented on June 15th, then refined until a final version was agreed on June 19th: this was Magna Carta. A more extreme version of the Barons views exists in a document called The Unknown Charter, which may have been produced in 1215, making the Articles a compromise, or 1213, but the date and exact nature is controversial. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Langton, was probably involved as a mediator between the two sides, although some older works claim he worked with the Barons, revealing to them documents about Henry I.

Quite what both sides thought they’d agreed upon is open to discussion. It is likely both sides thought they’d produced a pawn for negotiations, to attract the rest of the Barons before the real conflict started. Indeed, the rebels should have handed London over, but they resisted.

Magna Carta contains a preamble and sixty three clauses which have been divided into nine rough categories.

1. The Church is free.
2. Rights involving law, land and crown.
3. The rights of the second group as they apply to subtenants.
4. Rights belonging to trade, merchants and towns.
5. Changes to the laws and the maintenance of justice.
6. The behaviour of royal officers.
7. The royal forests.
8. The immediate handling of the rebellion.
9. Ways to bind the king to the charter.

Among all the contemporary issues, such as firing the heavily disliked royal mercenaries, were clauses which bought the king under the law of England, as opposed to issuing the law of England, for the first time. This was the crucial aspect of Magna Carta - that leaders are answerable to the law - which has lived long after the writers ever dreamt their agreement would.

It also allowed for the rebel Barons to fight John legally should he break it, so they could secure the terms.

Magna Carta Fails

Copies of the charter were sent out to country courts and other meetings to be read out. But Magna Carta, as it was initially signed, lasted just three months, and John soon began a campaign against the rebels. As John moved in on London, the rebels approached Prince Louis of France for aid. John faltered, and instead of taking London decided to savage the rebels’ own lands. This allowed Prince Louis to gather an army and land it on the English coast. With a broken navy and suspect allies, John again retreated. This was the tipping point, and now a majority of the English nobility sided with the rebels and Louis. John continued to retreat, but he caught dysentery and died on October 18th 1216.

Magna Carta Succeeds

William Marshal and a regency council now declared John’s son Henry as King Henry III, and in a rebellion killing masterstroke reissued Magna Carta. Suddenly a large number of rebels found their reasons for fighting had been removed, so they returned to the English king and ejected Louis by 1217. In 1225, Henry III reissued the charter when he came of age, and there were only a few real changes from the text of 1215. Over the next century the charter was reissued in 1264 and approved by Edward I in 1297, effectively transforming the document from a breakdown of how to end a rebellion into a set of loose guiding principles. The vagueness of the charter’s language helped people adapt it to changing situations.