800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta

‘Given in the meadow that is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines, 15 June’.

The Magna Carta Libertatum remains as one the most important piece of legislation in English history, a foundation for liberty, prosperity for the church and a cornerstone between the rights of an unpopular king and his dissatisfied barons. Constructed by the Archbishop of Canterbury after years of unstable and violent rule by the only King John to reign, it was designed to limit the excessive of the crown and establish what could be called an early form of parliament. Despite the 15th of June 1215 being the nominal date for the ratification of the charter of liberties, months had been taken with mediators scurrying between the barons in London and the king in Windsor to reach some formula that spells peace. It also took several days after until the 19th of June in order to have the sixty-one clauses written in binding legal terms and flawless medieval Latin. In this blog post I will attempt to explain the need for such a charter and discuss its failures alongside its successes. The charter did not receive its official name of the ‘Magna Carta’ until 1217 when John’s son Henry III rereleased it as part of the Peace Treaty of Lambeth.

King John, once the Count of Mortain, ascended the throne after his brother Richard I in 1199. Despite several setbacks in early life such as his disastrous attempts to quell the lords of Ireland for his father Henry II and forever being known as ‘John Lackland’, the name speaks for itself, due to rivalry with his several older brothers, John came to be known as a skilled administrator. Much of the government he inherited became to be known as the ‘Angevin Model’ essentially ruling by force and will, vis et voluntas, with the constant presence of the belief in Divine Right. This forceful nature of kingship however had been creating discord between the monarch and his subjects, specifically that of the lord and barons. Due to the growing strength of the French Capetian monarchy within its own country King John had slowly been watching the Angevin Empire be subsumed into the French crown. His failed leadership skills on the continent to keep Normandy, Gascony and Aquitaine under his thumb crumbled quickly under the contemporary Dauphin, the future Louis VIII. Louis had been building support both in England and France with the eventual ideology of invading England. Within his own country John faced opposition to the very means in which he sought money for his French campaigns.

The Feudal system on which thirteenth century England was based upon, meant that John could source money from his barons by payments if they wished to avoid military service, income from fines, court fees and the sale of town charters and other privileges. With parts of France slowly moving away from English control John had to increase the money being extorted from his barons especially since money was being used as leverage for political power among his barons. In his turbulent seventeen years as king, John increased levies on barons eleven times, compared to the ten times it had increased in the previous three kingships. Much of this was necessary since his brother Richard I had left the country in disarray and virtual bankruptcy from his involvement from the crusades, but the lords and barons felt that John had pushed it too far. This led to what is now known as the First Barons War.

The war lasted from 1215 to 1217 led by Robert Fitzwalter, a feudal baron from Essex, and his English and French supporters. The civil war that proceeded meant that the English pro-Angevin supporters, the Earls of Pembroke and Kent, were outnumbered by the forces of rebel barons from England, Scotland and France. The reason the war struggled on for two years was down to the then Dauphin Louis continuing the struggle even after most rebel lords had made peace with John, and also down to John’s decision to not abide by the Magna Carta within days of signing it. The Magna Carta was signed on the morning of the 15th of June 1215 and was thought to encompass and restrain the “king’s will” into the ‘Laws of the Land’ by which the Magna Carta become known. It prevented the king from raising taxes within a parliament of 25 barons acknowledging it, everyone had access to swift justice, it acknowledged the rights of the ‘free-men’ while ignored the rights of serfs or slaves. The most important clause that echoes through history is the first written law that the baron have the right to ensure the monarch follows the charter and have the means to withhold him from passing a law that looks unfavourable to them. This has made several historians conclude that it set a chain of events between the royalist and rebel factions to create clashes until the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. The historian Wilfred Warren concludes that clause 61, which the controlling the king statement is known as, essentially forced England to civil war since it was so heavily weighted against the king. The barons chosen to form the congregation of 25 barons were all rebels, none had leverage with John and none had any scruples for the pro-Angevin cause. Naturally rebels trying to restrain the king was going to end badly. Which resulted in a war lasting two years.

Some historian however believe that the charter was in the early stages of being the first great movement towards  Human Rights. The Magna Carta was changed in 1217, again in 1225 and again in 1297 by John’s descendants. Both Henry III and Edward I used the Magna Carta as part of peace treaties and for pacifying lords during times of strife since it was during this that the Welsh War of Independence began. The Magna Carta was used as basic law in England for the rights of the privileged, barons used it whenever a monarch attempted to rule without them or levy to great a tax on them. The introduction of the Magna Carta ensured that no monarch can rule without government, parliament and specifically without consent, everything had to be passed through the lords and barons.

The notion of ruling with consent has been considered a pure English revelation during the Middle Ages, due to the fact that the continent was swarmed by monarchs who ruled by absolutism. However despite it failures in keeping the crown and government together over the centuries since its release, the Magna Carta did however promote welfare statutes and human rights well before the continent caught up. Even if it did benefit the upper ranks of society for a few centuries before it filtered through to the masses.

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