Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
The Magna Carta, also known as the Great Charter, the Magna Carta Libertatum and The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, is a document that was signed by King John in 1215. He signed the document under duress after facing ongoing rebellion from his barons. In signing the Magna Carta King John forever changed the power of the monarchy, the rights of an English citizen and the influence Parliament had on the country.
The Magna Carta, like the Domesday Book, is considered one of the most important documents to have been written during the Middle Ages, and it has since had a great impact on English law and the society. A copy of the Magna Carta can be found and read online today.
What was the Purpose of the Magna Carta?
The content of the Magna Carta was drafted between the Church and the rebelling barons. The majority of the content was written by Archbishop Stephen Langton and English barons. The Magna Carta was written and designed to reduce the powers held by the King and to make him govern the country by old English laws that had prevailed before the invasion of the Normans.
The Magna Carta was a series of written promises between the king and his subjects that as the ruler of the country he would govern England and preside over its people according to the customs set out byfeudal law.
The ‘Articles of the Barons’ (the original version of the Magna Carta) and the Magna Carta was an attempt by the barons to stop a king abusing his power and authority, especially when it caused the citizens of the country unnecessary pain and suffering.
What Events Led to The Creation of the Magna Carta?
It may seem strange that a band of barons were able to wield such power and authority over the king, but ultimately it was the barons that helped the king run both his internal and external affairs.
The barons would provide the king with both money and men to defend French territories that were owned by the English. Traditionally, the king would consult with the barons before raising taxes, as it would be the barons who were expected to collect these additional funds. The king would also consult with barons when requesting more men for military service, as they would be the people responsible for sourcing the new soldiers. These practices were all part of what is known as theFeudal System.
Providing campaigns were successful, this arrangement would be relatively easy for the barons and the citizens to agree to. However, King John was not successful in his military campaigns abroad. His constant losses, demands for extra funds and men angered the barons and the citizens.
By 1204, John had lost the lands owned in northern France, and King John increased the taxes to recoup his losses without first consulting with the barons. This was againstfeudal law and accepted custom and the barons lost their patience.
As well as causing conflicts with the barons, King John had very public disputes with the Roman Catholic Church, which also damaged his credibility and influence on the people.
Timeline of Events
Coronation and Disputes with the Roman Catholic Church
On 27th May 1199 John was crowned King of England following the death of his brother Richard earlier in the year.
In 1205 King John had an argument with the Pope, who was at the time Pope Innocent III. They disputed who should adopt the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope was keen to see Stephen Langton take the title of Archbishop of Canterbury, but King John was against Stephen entering the country and taking up this position.
In 1209 Pope Innocent III finally became frustrated with the decision taken by King John, and he made the decision to excommunicate King John from the church. Excommunication from the Church meant that John, if he died before the excommunication was withdrawn, would not be able to enter Heaven if he died.
The Pope also took the decision to ban parish churches from performing traditional church services, and this had a dramatic impact on King John’s ability to rule, as his citizens were influenced by the decision and actions taken by the church. The fear of going to Hell was powerful during these times, and the citizens wanted King John to work with the Church rather than against it to avoid going to Hell.
Faced with these two religious problems, King John had to succumb to the religious pressure from both his people and the Pope, and he agreed to allow Stephen Langton to take the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. However, the Pope was not prepared to let King John get off lightly. Pope Innocent III ordered King John to pay him large sums of money.
Payments to the Pope and Taxes on the People
As such, King John decided to levy considerable taxes on to his people to pay the Pope. The taxes were extortionate, and crippled entire communities. Failure to pay led to swift and fierce reprisals, and there was little room for justice or forgiveness.
In 1212 King John imposed a new set of taxes on the Barons. This was to fund a renewed attempt to regain the land he had lost in Aquitaine, Poitou and Anjou. However, the taxes on his barons became a step too far, and his barons began questioning the king’s methods for ruling the country. Questions quickly became quarrels and quarrels led to fierce and bitter disputes between the king and his barons.
The barons, reluctant to lose to the king and be forced into paying the new taxes, decided to join forces with one of king’s adversaries, the aforementioned Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton.
1214 saw yet another disastrous year for King John. Further losses in France caused King John to return home looking for more money in taxes and more troops. This time, however, the barons were not prepared to accommodate the king and his military and financial requirements.
The Creation of the ‘Articles of the Barons’
The group of barons decided that the influence and the power of the King needed to be curbed, and they felt it was right to make him govern by the old English laws that had prevailed before the Normans had invaded and taken the sovereignty away from the Anglo-Saxons.
The Anglo-Saxons had enjoyed considerably more freedoms and liberties than had been granted by William and the Conqueror and the subsequent Norman kings.
The demands of the Barons were fully documented in the 'Articles of the Barons' in January 1215. Once they knew exactly what they wanted to get, they took up arms against their king and began causing problems to get the king’s attention. By May 1215, the barons had successfully captured London, giving them a powerful leverage tool against the king as well as a strong location to operate from.
Cornering the King
In June of 1215 the barons dressed in full armour, cornered King John, catching him by surprise at Windsor. He was forced into agreeing to a meeting at Runnymede.
It was at this meeting in Runnymede that King John was presented with a copy of the ‘Articles of the Barons’ and under duress he signed the document on June 10, 1215. The Magna Carta was then produced using the Royal Seal, and copies of the document were sent to important individuals across the country. Convinced that they had got their point across and had the king on their side, the barons renewed their individual Oaths of Fealty to the King on June 15, 1215.
Deceit, Deception and Rebellion
Despite his co-operation at Runnymede it quickly became clear that King John had no intention of honouring the agreement and abiding by clauses laid out in the Magna Carta.
His deceit and deception greatly angered the barons, and eventually led to the Barons War which ran between 1215 and 1217.
In 1216 Prince Louis took advantage of the civil uprising occurring against King John, and took the decision to invade England. Louis headed straight to London where he received massive amounts of support from the barons that had been let down by King John and his lies. Not only was Prince Louis welcomed, his was proclaimed and accepted as the new King of England, although he was never crowned and King John never gave up the throne to him.
King John died in October, and rather than embracing the Prince that they had only just a few months before supported, the barons turned on the prince, and instead turned their support and allegiance to the nine year old son of King John. The young boy was later crowned and became King Henry III of England.
Why the Magna Carta was Important to the History of England
The Magna Carta is considered to be the foundations of a constitutional government in England. It led to a great change in the perception and the power of the king.
It changed the kind of power a parliament could exert on king and the country, and it also established a basic set of civil rights for citizens residing in England.
The Magna Carta demonstrated that the power of the king could be limited by a document.
The Magna Carta is considered as the document that provided the foundations for English liberties, which were then extended when the English left and travelled to America. These liberties were then adopted by the new arrivals and used as part of their own declaration of civil rights.
The influence of Magna Carta can be seen in some of the most important documents in American history, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Article 21 from the Declaration of Rights in the Maryland Constitution of 1776 reads:
"That no freeman ought to be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized of his freehold, liberties, or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, or deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land."
Summary of the Magna Carta
The Magna Carta was a revolutionary document that helped shape society, human rights, religion and politics, both in England and in America.
The Magna Carta promised a set of laws that were fair on all of the people, and not just the people who had money. This important document stated that everyone should have access to the courts, no matter what the costs and no matter what financial circumstances that person had.
It also states that no free citizen would be imprisoned or punished without first going through a proper legal system. This was a huge leap for civil rights, and it is one of the clauses of the Magna Carta that has helped shape modern law.
The last few sections of the Magna Carta detail how the caluses should be implemented in the law and executed throughout the country. Initially twenty five barons were given the responsibility of making sure that the king adhered to the clauses as described in the Magna Carta, and the same document gives them permission to use force against the king if they felt it was necessary.
King John agreed to the Magna Carta, and even consented to the use of the Royal Seal to give the formal document impact. However, his support was superficial and King John quickly made it obvious that he had no intention of honouring the laws as described in the document. This was King John’s biggest, and final mistake.
The creation of the Magna Carta ensured that:
The Church would be able to operate free from royal interference. This was especially important in the process of electing bishops.
Citizens of England could expect no taxes except for the regular feudal dues that were expected. Additional taxes could only be levied with the consent of the Great Council or Parliament
Citizens of England could expect fairer trials and they were not subject to punishment by the king.
Citizens of England could expect fair weights and measures that would be uniformed throughout the country.