Rebellious barons required that King John of England approve the Magna Carta (Latin for “the Great Charter”) in 1215. Many consider the document to be the foundation of English constitutional government and individual liberties. By the end of the Middle Ages the charter had become binding legal precedent in the English law courts and a check on royal authority as it was reaffirmed, with modifications, by successive monarchs.
The Magna Carta is viewed as the first public act of an emerging nation-state and a revolutionary declaration of not only the privileges of powerful lords, but also the judicial, political, and commercial rights of Englishmen of every rank.
Moreover it is seen as a subsequent barrier to absolutism in England, through recognition of a collective national will and the concept of the rule of law, and the forerunner to parliamentary supremacy and future democratic achievements, including the Constitution of the United States. Others view it as chiefly an affirmation of existing feudal obligations forced on an administratively able, yet unlucky king by self-interested barons.
The roots of the Magna Carta are traceable to the reign of John’s father, the energetic and imaginative Henry II, the first ruler of the Plantagenet dynasty and “the father of the common law.” As a part of his successful centralization of power following years of civil war and chaos, Henry II forged a national legal system through uniformity of legal rules and roving royal courts at the expense of manorial tribunals applying haphazard local customs and dominated by individual lords.
Ironically this concentration of power by regularization of the law would be the impetus for constraining Henry’s less just son. Although deprived of their judicial power, the baronage came to appreciate predictable legal standards, impartial courts, and objective regulation of feudal obligations, especially after John abused them.
These abuses included unprecedented taxation, exorbitant feudal fines, misuse of royal authority over warships and marriages, illegal confiscation of baronial lands, and arbitrary judicial rulings. Discontent with John’s rule, limited to the lords, the lower aristocracy and many townspeople objected to his oppression, taxation, and disregard of custom.
Therefore barons sought to preserve the law as a way to curb John and prevent the consolidation of a tyrannical order. Thus what was once a method of Henry II to extend royal authority became the means of limiting it. The Magna Carta can be seen as a conservative reaction to Henry’s misrule.
John is not totally to blame for the debacle of 1215, for he came to the throne in 1199 without the popularity of his charismatic brother and predecessor, the crusading Richard I the Lionhearted and was encumbered with an empty treasury, rampant inflation, and the moniker “John Lackland” because of the absence of a bequest of territory from his father.
Hindered by a reputation for untrustworthiness, rumors that he had usurped the throne by murdering his nephew, and his excommunication in 1209 over disputes with the church, John saw his loss of his possessions of Normandy and Anjou, the heart of the Angevin empire, to the French King Philip II Augustus become disastrous.
With these military defeats of 1203–04, a humiliated John turned to strengthening his control of England and raising funds to finance a new French campaign. When this campaign failed miserably and he was forced to pay tribute to the French king, John returned to England discredited, broke, and determined to squeeze all the funds he could from his English domain.
Unlike earlier disputes between English kings and their barons, discontent involved neither rival claimants to the Crown nor jealous factions of the royal family. This proved beneficial to the barons, for instead of fighting for a personage or power, they claimed to be defending the entire realm and its traditions.
At a conference with the king in January 1215 at London, the barons demanded that John reaffirm his coronation oath and institute reforms. But John, who had asked the pope to side with him and was preparing for battle, demanded that the barons make a new oath of allegiance. Instead the barons mobilized for war and renounced their fealty to the king at Northampton on May 5.
Under the leadership of Robert FitzWalter, the rebels were welcomed into London by the populace on June 10 as John fled to his stronghold of Windsor Castle. After much negotiation, and the departure of disgruntled northern lords, John consented to terms on June 15 in the meadow of Runnymede near Windsor and his seal was affixed to the document. On June 19 the barons reaffirmed their loyalty.
The Magna Carta, first known as the “Articles of the Barons,” contained 63 articles restricting royal power, clarifying feudal responsibilities, and guaranteeing certain rights, including those of the church. More particularly it provided redress of grievances concerning land, asserted the authority of the Great Council to block abusive taxation, required that the courts stay fair and open, asserted commercial rights beneficial to middle-class merchants, and required the restraint of royal officials.
It even protected widows from being compelled to marry. It was remarkably visionary in that it recognized the judicial due process rights of all Englishmen, not just the aristocracy. Enforcement was provided through a council of 25 barons with the legal authority to make war on the king if necessary.
In keeping with his reputation John never intended to abide by the document and was only buying time. He soon prepared for renewed resistance and won a pronouncement from the pope declaring the Magna Carta void because he agreed to it under duress.
But there was no turning back. Although it failed as a peace treaty, the Magna Carta swiftly commanded a reverence and majesty of its own and became an indelible part of the English constitution. John died in 1216, while once again fleeing his barons.