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This Week In History

Magna Carta – June 15, 1215 AD

In 1204 AD, King John of England lost most of his ancestral lands to King Philip II of France. In response, John heavily taxed the barons in his remaining lands to raise funds to ultimately wage an expensive war in 1214. That effort was a failure and John ended up having to sue for peace after the Battle of Bouvines. John returned to England and found the barons, who already disliked him because of his abuse of authority against them, had organized in the north and east against him. The rebel barons swore an oath for “liberty of the church and realm” and demanded John uphold the Charter of Liberties issued in 1100 AD by King Henry I, which bound the king to laws regarding the treatment of nobles, church officials and individuals.

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Cotton MS. Augustus II. 106, one of only four surviving examples of the 1215 text.

John held a council in 1215 in London and in spring held discussions between his representatives and the rebel leaders to discuss some reforms. Neither side trusted each other and both sides approached Pope Innocent III for assistance. During the negotiations, the rebels put forth an “Unknown Charter of Liberties”, as it is called by historians, which expanded upon the original Charter of Liberties. Since John had declared himself a papal vassal of the Church in 1213, he was counting on support from the pope. Further, he also took an oath to become a crusader. In April, the pope had sent a letter backing John, but the rebels had already organized militarily and denounced John, ended their feudal ties to him and marched on London, Exeter and Lincoln. The occupation of London caused more loyalists to defect to the rebel cause.

On June 10, John met with the rebel leaders at Runnymede – a traditional place for assemblies. The location is on neutral ground, outside of Windsor Castle and the rebel base of Staines-upon-Thames. The rebels formalized their demands into the “Articles of the Barons”, which was the draft that was discussed and compromised over the next ten days. By June 15, a general agreement was formed. This initial agreement would go on to become known as the Magna Carta, or Great Charter. On June 19, 1215, the rebels renewed their oath to John and copies of the charter were formally issued.

The charter dealt not only with issues important to the barons, but also discussed wider political reforms. Included in the articles were the rights of the church, protection against illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice and limits on taxation. There was one particularly troublesome article, however, which was “clause 61”. This forced John to adhere to the charter and if the barons felt he was not, they could seize the lands and castles until they were satisfied with the amends. There was a council of 25 barons who would be in charge of maintaining clause 61 and the council was packed with all formal rebel barons, appointed by the most extreme of the group.

Naturally, the former rebels immediately found reasons to refuse to vacate London or surrender anything they just occupied over the past few months, despite agreeing London would be freed by August 15. John contacted the pope again and in a letter dated August 24, which arrived in September, the pope declared the charter “not only shameful and demeaning, but also illegal and unjust” since John was forced to accept it. Violence broke out and devolved into the First Barons’ War. The rebels decided peace was not possible with John on the throne and turned to Philip II and offered it to his son, the future King Louis VIII of France, if he would come to their aid. The war stalemated and John died of an illness on October 18, the throne passing on to his son, King Henry III, who was nine.

The Magna Carta was a failure with regards to being a peace treaty, but it succeeded in being used to draw support away from the rebels. On his deathbed, John appointed a council of thirteen executors to help Henry, and placed his guardianship in the hands of William Marshal, one of the most famous knights in England. Marshal knighted Henry and Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, the papal legate to England, oversaw Henry’s coronation on October 28. Marshal and Bicchieri used their resources to gain support for Henry and proclaimed the war against the rebels was the equivalent to a religious crusade.

Over the next few months, support for the rebels came from France, but after the Battle of Lincoln in May, 1217, Prince Louis returned to France, accepting the war against England was lost. A great council was formed and in October and November, culminated in the Charter of 1217, resembling the Magna Carta, but with more well-defined terms.

During the reign of Henry III, the government adopted the charters into workable agreements which were tested over time. When Henry finally became of age in 1227 and could rule independently, he announced future charters had to be issued under his seal. In 1253, he once again confirmed the charters in exchange for taxation.

The Magna Carta itself is legendary. It is argued that although the language essentially was for the benefit of the barons, the individual liberties were supposed to applied to all free men. Although by 1350 much of the Magna Carta had been rendered obsolete by subsequent laws, it was still invoked during medieval trials. During the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Magna Carta was used to reign in the English monarchy, claiming the King was bound to the laws of the land, and lawyers used it in arguments in trials. The first copy of the Magna Carta printed in the United States was part of William Penn’s “The Excellent Privilege of Liberty and Property: being the birth-right of the Free-Born Subjects of England” in 1687. The Magna Carta also formed the basis of the Constitution of the United States, since the colonists brought with them charters saying they would enjoy the same liberties they enjoyed in England. When they rebelled against King George III, it was in part because the colonists argued the crown was imposing “taxation without representation”, in violation of Magna Carta.

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