In the early 13th century, England suffered through the worst monarch it would have in its history: King John.
John and his arbitrary policies and high taxation angered the nobility, the church, and the common people.
However, out of his disastrous reign came something good. An uprising against his rule forced him to sign a document establishing fundamental principles of limited government, the rule of law, and individual rights, marking a crucial milestone in developing constitutional and legal frameworks.
Learn more about the Magna Carta, how it came about, and its significance on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before we get into what the Magna Carta is and its significance, it is important to understand why the Magna Carta was written in the first place and what the events were that brought it about.
Going back to the beginning in 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, successfully invaded England and became the King of England known as William the Conquerer.
He was succeeded by his two sons, William II and Henry I.
After the death of Henry, it ushered in a period of civil strife known as The Anarchy, which I covered in the previous episode. King Stephen nominally ruled during this period, and after years of chaos, Henry II was agreed to by both sides as the heir to Stephen.
Henry II was probably one of the greatest kings in the history of England. He was the first king of what was known as the Angevins Empire.
Henry died in 1189 and was succeeded by his son Richard, better known as Richerd the Lionheart. Richard was gone for much of his reign having joined the Crusades. While he was away, there was a rebellion against his rule by his brother John.
When Richard returned, he forgave John and appointed him as his heir. In 1199, Richard died from an infection caused by getting hit by a crossbow bolt in the shoulder.
After the death of Richard, John became king.
John was not the king that his brother and father were. He was not a capable administrator, and he wasn’t a warrior.
His claim to the throne was immediately challenged by his nephew Arthur, who was the son of his deceased brother Geoffrey. Arthur was supported by the French King Philip II.
It should be noted that at this time, the Kings of England were really French nobles with extensive French land holdings, which also just happened to be the King of England.
He managed to fend off the claim to the English throne, but within the first five years of his rule, he had lost much of the land that he had held claim to in France. This included almost all of Normandy and Brittany.
Moreover, many of the nobles in England also lost land that they had owned in France as well.
John made it his mission to recapture the lands that he lost in France. To do this, he had to raise an army, which meant increasing taxes.
The loss of land and the subsequent increase in taxes made him very unpopular with both the common folk and the nobility.
On top of his problems with everyone in England, 1205 also saw the development of problems between him and the church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1205, and John selected one of his allies as the new archbishop.
The monks at Canterbury didn’t want John’s selected and elected their own archbishop.
The pope, Innocent III, stepped in and invalided the appointments made by the king and the monks and appointed his own man as archbishop, Stephen Langton.
This angered John, so he banned Stephen from entering England and then proceeded to confiscate all of the assets of the Archbishopric of Canterbury.
This raised the ire of members of the clergy in England, and when they complained, John seized their property too.
In 1208, after further attempts at trying to get John to recognize Langton as archbishop failed, Innocent III put a ban on a church’s services in England. A ban that lasted six years.
In 1209, the pope then took the step of ex-communicating King John, removing him from the Catholic Church. This had been done to other European rulers without much impact, but those rulers weren’t as unpopular as John.
Over the next few years, John had limited success getting back land in Northumbria from Scotland and putting down a revolt by Irish nobles. However, the barrons back in England were still never satisfied.
This came to a head in 1213. He tried to get his barons on board to attack France, but they used the excuse of his ex-communication to ignore him. As he was no longer part of the church, they claimed they had no legal moral right to listen to him.
So, to rectify that problem, he went back to the pope. He cut a deal where the pope would remove the excommunication. In exchange, John turned all of England into a papal fiefdom which he would run. He, technically, gave away the entire country.
He would provide the pope an annual payment of 1000 marks or 666 pounds, which covered England and Ireland. This also provided compensation for lands that he had previously taken from the church.
With the issues with the pope resolved, he created an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire, attacked France….and lost at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214.
The defeat to France emboldened many of the rebellious English barons, especially those in the north and east of England who owed John money.
When John returned from France in 1215, the barons were in open rebellion. By May, many of them openly dissolved their allegiance to King John and marched on London and other major English cities. They captured London, Lincoln, and Exeter, which forced John to come to the negotiating table.
An uprising of aristocratic landowners against their king was something that could have occurred in any part of the world. What makes the event known as the First Barons War notable is that they weren’t necessarily trying to kill or replace the king.
What they sought were concessions from the king and limits placed on his rule.
King John had been painted into a corner. He ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was sympathetic to the barons, to arrange a meeting.
On June 10, 1215, John met with the Barons, using Archbishop Langton as a moderator. They met in a marshy place called Runnymeade, which was located approximately halfway between the royal forces and the forces of the barons.
John was presented a list of demands which were called the ‘Articles of the Barons’.
Over the course of several days, both sides negotiated, and on June 15, John signed the charter.
The document primarily outlined the rights of free men, which at that time just meant landowning nobility. The document primarily deals with taxes, inheritance, rights to a fair trial, the independence of the church, and limits on royal authority.
It also created a council of twenty-five barons to monitor the conduct of King John and confiscate his property in the event he broke the agreement.
The document was supposed to act as a peace treaty between the two sides, and in that respect, it failed miserably.
John had no intention of honoring the agreement. When Pope Innocent III found out about it, he declared it to be invalid and annulled it.
Within three months, the two sides were at war again.
However, the reign of King John was short-lived. In 1216, he contracted dysentery and died on October 19.
The end of King John was not the end of the document that he signed in 1215.
John was succeeded by Henry III, who was only nine years old. His regent was the great knight William Marshall, on whom I’ve done a previous episode. Marshall also happened to be one of the more loyal supporters of King John but also signed the document of the barons.
In order to placate the barons, Henry, but in reality, William, issued a new version of the charter, eliminating a few of the clauses in the original.
Another charter was issued in 1217, based again on the 1215 charter with some changes, and an associated charter, which was known as the Chater of the Forrests, dealt with offenses in royal forests.
In 1225, the 1217 charter was reissued in response to the crown raising money from the barons for another war.
It was in 1225 that the 1215 charter became known for the first time as the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter.
The big question was if Henry III was going to honor the charter once he came of age. Many royal supporters believed the charter to be invalid because King John had been forced to sign it.
However, Henry agreed to honor the charter.
He reissued the charter in 1253 as a concession to raise taxes from his barons.
Likewise, in 1297, Edward I reissued the charter of 1225 also in return for a new tax.
This was the last time the Magna Carta was reissued, and by the reign of Edward I, it had become established law.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Magna Carta was appealed to and cited in courts as established law.
The importance of the Magna Carta isn’t in the actual document, and the rights it spelled out for English nobility. It was the fact that it was a written document that placed limits on the power of a monarch, who, up until that time, had powers that were considered to be absolute.
It was the first written constitution in European history that established rights of any kind, even if they were mostly rights for nobles.
The Magna Carta of 1215 and the Council of Barons served as a precursor for the English parliament, which was to be established soon after.
What most people don’t realize is that the Magna Carta of 1225, the final version of the charter, written in Latin, is still technically part of British law.
However, over the years, almost all of the clauses in the Magna Carta have been superseded by subsequent legislation. Yet, there are three clauses in the Magna Carta which are still valid law.
However, those three clauses are so vaguely worded they have no real standing. The relevant clauses still in effect are the first, the ninth, and the twenty-ninth.
The first clause establishes the independence of the Church of England, which means something completely different after Henry VIII than it did when it was written back in 1215.
The Manga Carta was used as inspiration for subsequent political documents, including the United States Consitution and the Bill of Rights. Elements of it can also be found in the founding documents for other former British territories such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
There were thirteen physical copies of the Manga Carta, which were issued in 1215. Seven were released in June, and six more later in the year.
Currently, there are only four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. Two copies are held by the British Library, one at Salisbury Cathedral, and the fourth is on display at Lincoln Castle, on permanent loan from the Lincoln Cathedral.
The Lincoln Cathedral copy was on display at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and at the Library of Congress. Winston Churchill considered giving it to the United States as a gift to help bring them into WWII, but the Lincoln Cathedral refused to give it up.
These are not the only copies of the Manga Carta that exist. There is one copy of the 1216 version, which can be found at Durham Cathedral.
There are four copies of the 1225 Magna Carta. They are held by Durham Cathedral, the British Library, the British National Archives, and Oxford University.
There are only two copies of the Magna Carta, which are outside of England. Both copies are from the 1297 issue of the Charter. One is in Australia on display at the Parliament House in Canberra.
The other copy was held by the Brudenell family in England for years, who held the Earldom of Cardigan. They sold the document to the Perot Foundation in 1984, who then sold it to US businessman David Rubenstein in 2007 for $21.3 million dollars.
That version is currently on display at the National Archive in Washington, DC.
The Magna Carta is unquestionably one of the most important political documents in history, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time. Many of the clauses in the document wouldn’t pass modern scrutiny.
Nonetheless, the Magna Carta set the stage for the idea of a written constitution, which is an idea that changed the world.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
Today’s review comes from listener BrandyBrain over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
Orts of Great Info!
I love the amazing amount of information sandwiched into this podcast! It is a smorgasbord for my brain, and I love the variety in the daily episodes.
Thanks, Brandy! Each episode of this podcast contains multiple orts of information. Collectively, the amount of information provided since the launch of this podcast in 2020 is probably well into the hundreds of kilaorts. Before I am done, I’m sure I will have provided multiple megaorts of information to the world.
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