Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Signing of the Magna Carta

King John signing the Magna Carta
It is an influential document in world history. It constricted the powers of a monarch in an era of absolute power of kings. It set the tone for the concept of civil rights. The Magna Carta of 1215 constrained the power of England’s King John and placed law above all else, including powerful monarchs.

King John became the central character in the creation of the Magna Carta. Ascended to the throne in 1199, he succeeded his brother Richard the Lionhearted as King of England. He ruled over a vast kingdom, which include not just England in the British Isles but also provinces in France, most especially, Normandy. The English ruled Normandy ever since the conquest of William the Conquerer in 1066. King John, despite many stories of being incompetent and brutal, was intelligent. However, international realities negatively affected his rule. In 1204, the French King Philip II successfully took Normandy from the English. The invasion led King John to raise an invasion force to retake the loss lands in France. In order to raise the army, however, it required vast amount of resources. King John increased tax collection to his nobles in order to finance the re-conquest of Normandy. Some of John’s sheriffs or bailiffs, however, extorted money from the barons and also confiscated lands. Stories of daughters of barons being married to wealthy merchants for money spread as well. Brutality and ruthlessness became the preferred tactics of John and his collectors. It tarnished his reputation adding more to his already notorious image of being a playboy.

King John and Catholic Church also went against each other. During the Medieval Era, the Catholic Church, led by the Pope from Rome, had the greatest power and influence in Europe, rulers bowed to the will of the pontiff or the Vicar of Christ on Earth. The Pope had the control over all the clergy in the whole of Christendom. However, some brave monarchs tend to interfere in appointing of church officials, invoking their divine rights as their basis for their right to appoint church officials. They believed that they also represent God on Earth and so they had the power to control the church as well. It then resulted to conflict between these brave monarchs and the Pope, and the same thing happened to King John. In 1205, john contested the election of the Archbishop of Canterbury. John’s meddling in the affair infuriated Pope Innocent III. The conflict escalated in 1209 when Pope Innocent III excommunicated King John. In retaliation, King John confiscated all church lands, in doing so, he took their wealth and used it to fund his campaign in France. The fight between Innocent III and John ended in 1213 when John backed down to the Pope.

Disaster followed john defeat to the Pope. In July 1214, all chances of regaining Normandy from the French ended with the defeat of his allies in the Battle of Bouvines. The defeat meant that years of intensely collected money from the England went down the drain. The loss of Normandy and a huge part of the treasury made many of John’s already unsatisfied barons furious. On the same year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, called for the creation of a charter that defended the rights of freemen from the tyrannical and absolute rule of King John. Following the call of the Archbishop, the Barons of England rose up in rebellion against their King, calling for a charter that would control the powers of the monarchy.

Barons played a major part in the society not just of England but the whole of Medieval Europe. Feudalism reigned across Europe during the said era. Kings bestow upon few men a piece of their land and gave them the power to manage and rule the people and plot that they received. This men became members of the nobility (included earls, barons, knights, dukes, etc.) and in exchange for their serfs and land, they had to render service and pay taxes to King. And so Kings maintained his power through his control over his barons. Losing them meant loss of men as well as revenue. Hence, King John, when the barons rose up, faced a formidable challenge.

The rebellion raged in 1215. Barons from the North, supported by King Alexander II of Scotland and King Llywelyn of Wales denounce the King’s rule in Stamford, Lincolnshire on May 5, 1215. The people of London supported the call for the charter, hence the rebellion, and opened the gates of the biggest city of England to the rebel barons.

King John began negotiations with the rebellious barons after the fall of London. In June 10, 1215, he met with the barons in Runnymede. The negotiations for the charter dragged on for five days until June 15, 1215 when King John finally signed the Articles of the Barons, which later became known as the Great Charter or Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta controlled the powers of the king and defended the rights of the noble, freemen, and the church. It contained a preamble and 6 clause that covered numerous issue, from inheritance to trial by jury, and even the standardization of measurement. For the English justice system, the Magna Carta promoted a trial by jury and the following of a due process before conviction or fines. It also prohibited imprisonment without charges or today known as habeas corpus. It set up court procedures not in the courts of the lords but in “fixed places.” An individual could not be imprisoned without charges, evidence, and credible witnesses. It protected freemen from being fined exorbitantly and set up the amount equal to the gravity of one’s crime. Taxation reduced to only £100 unlike previous taxes that ranged about a thousand. The Magna Carta also declared the Church free from the control and powers of the King. It also regulated the process of a land of a baron being inherited by a minor son. It embodied as well the rights of the widows of the lords, which include giving a baron’s widow her part of inheritance and freedom from being force to marry again. Debt payment and protection of customs and liberties of London and other counties and boroughs became issues covered by the Great Charter.  The Magna Carta also protected freemen from abuses of the sheriffs and bailiffs, such as being force to build bridge and other structures, seizure of corn and livestock by force, and also setting themselves as judge in cases that a Royal justice should handle.  It restricted the powers of the sheriffs and bailiffs. The Charter also required justices, constables, and sheriff to have a knowledge of the law of the Kingdom. Other clauses of the Magna Carta included the removal of fish-weirs in the River Thames and Medway, the standardization of the measurement of ale, wine, corn, dyed cloth, russets, and haberjects, and making the writ of inquest free to attain. The Magna Carta set the tone that the King must abide to the laws of the lands.

The Magna Carta, however, did not cover everyone. The Magna Carta defined many laws protecting the rights of freemen. However, most of the population of the England were not freemen but serfs. Serfs that served under the nobles that cover just about 30% of the population. The Magna Carta protected the nobles from abuses, but not the same could be said to the peasantry. Abuses to the serfs continued. 

The enforcement and the aftermath of the signing of the Magna Carta, however, resulted to a failure and chaos. According to the Magna Carta, a 25 man council made of Barons would enforce the contents of the Charter. But King John signed only the Magna Carta for the sake of appeasing the barons and without the intention of implementing the said Charter. In September 1215, John even acted against the Magna Carta by asking the Pope to rescind the Charter, which Pope Innocent III did. However, the Charter also stated that failure to comply would give the barons right to rebel. Once again, before the 1215 passed, rebellions once again broke out in the north. Rebelling barons even supported the dethronement of King John in favor of a French Dauphin, the son of King Philip the II of France, Louis. Louis even landed in England in 1216 to become the symbol of the rebellion against King John. In October, 1216, King John passed away.

King Henry III, the 9 year old son of John, ascended to the throne. He reissued the Magna Carta, which resulted to the end of rebellions. In the following year, Henry once again reissued it with revisions, such as the removal of the 25 man council and the right of rebellion. In 1225, the Magna Carta became part of the English statute laws.

The effects of the Magna Carta, however, did not confined in the 13th century only. It became one of the most influential documents in history as it called for liberty and civil rights. It became an inspiration for the Parliament of England and the creation of a Constitutional Monarchy in the 17th century. It inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States during the time of the formulation of the United States Constitution. The Magna Carta inspired the creation of many Bills of Rights.

See also:

Bibliography:
History.com Staff. "Magna Carta Sealed." History.com. Accessed June 19, 2015. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/magna-carta-sealed

"Magna Carta." in Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Edited by Garrett Ward Sheldon. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc, 2001.

Burns, William. A Brief History of Great Britain. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc, 2010.

Carpenter, David. "Magna Carta is forced on John." in The Great Turning Points of British History: The 20 Events That Made the Nation. Edited by Michael Wood. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2009.


Morgan, Kenneth. The Oxford History of Britain. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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