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King John and the Magna Carta

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Leonard Rossiter as King John in a 1984 BBC production of The Life and Death of King John.

The history of the Magna Carta has been given a somewhat romantic slant over the years. For generations, the picture in most people's minds has been the one they were given during their school days, which tends to go as follows:

It was a fine day, there is a large open fronted tent with trees behind with a table set within. Behind the table is a seated man with an angry expression surrounded by several men pointing at a document the angry-looking man is signing.

However, there is much more to it than that. The angry-looking man is, in fact, King John, the unwilling participant in this affair, and the onlookers are his rebellious barons. The tent is sited in a meadow at Runnymede, near Staines in Surrey, England. The document is the famous Magna Carta - the charter of privileges. It was signed in the following way:

... given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines on the 15th day of June in the 17th year of our reign.
The 'great men of the kingdom', the most powerful men in England, were there to witness the signing.

Magna Carta is Latin for 'the Great Charter', although there were several copies made, each confirmed by a royal seal - this being the normal procedure in the 13th Century, with documents being made official by sealing rather than by signing. Out of the four original copies surviving to this day, the finest is held at Salisbury Cathedral,Wiltshire, England. In 1215, it was not safe to assume that anyone was literate. King John is said to have greatly enjoyed his large library, so it is highly unlikely that he was illiterate. When King John met with the barons at Runnymede, they only drew up notes which were then taken away. It is said the king signed the notes from which the Magna Carta emerged some time later.

Contents of the Magna Carta

As a document, the Magna Carta is now fondly regarded as a statement of the rights and liberties of the common man. The last words of the first paragraph make it clear to whom the Magna Carta is addressed:

'To all free men of our kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs.'

It is clear that the common man did not get a mention at all, and the Magna Carta simply did not apply unless one was a freeman and/or a landowner. In those days, very few people were in fact 'free men', with the Magna Carta being addressed in particular 'To the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, prevosts, serving men, and to all his bailiffs and faithful subjects', while the common man, villeins and serfs are conspicuously and deliberately omitted.

There is little about 'law' as such in the Magna Carta, being more a list of grievances the nobility had with the Crown. The first draft was called the 'Articles of the Barons'. However, the Magna Carta did establish the principle that the power of the king could be limited.

Scholars speculate that the Magna Carta may have been a document compiled in some haste and edited to reflect many different points of view. The document is constructed with 63 clauses, and includes clauses to free the hostages of the Scottish and Welsh kingdoms, these being members of the royal families held by the English Crown:

Clause 58: 'We shall straightway return the son of Llewelin and all the Welsh hostages, and the charters delivered to us as surety for the peace'.

Clause 59: 'We shall act towards Alexander king of the Scots regarding the restoration of his sisters, and his hostages, and his liberties and his lawful right, as we shall act towards our other barons of England; unless it ought to be otherwise according to the charters which we hold from William, his father, the former king of the Scots. And this shall be done through judgment of his peers in our court'.

There was also an attempt in Magna Carta to set standards of weights and measures in England, particularly for wine, ale, corn and cloth:

Clause 35: 'There shall be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm, and one measure of ale and one measure of corn - namely, the London quart; - and one width of dyed and resset and hauberk cloths - namely, two ells below the selvage. And with weights, moreover, it shall be as with measures'.

All the common people got out of Magna Carta was the legend of Robin Hood and a document that would make no difference to them until the abolition of the feudal system.

The Feudal System

Most of the population were peasants, and very few peasants were free men - they were better than slaves, but not much. Peasants who were not free men were either:

  • Villeins: The largest group of the population, these were landless peasant slaves in all but name who could have the ground they lived upon taken and sold while they stood upon it.
  • Serfs: A tenant farmer of sorts with a commitment to work on his lord's land, four out of the six days of the week without pay for the use of their land, with the obligation of attending church each Sunday. They could not leave the land without permission, and they could be sold and forced to leave the land.
  • The main reason for the existence of both classes was labour. They were also obliged to provide their own oxen, ploughs and tools as required, and had to work 'boon days'; that is, seven additional days per year chosen at random.

    The Great Men of the Kingdom

    The 'great men of the kingdom' who were called to witness the signing was a selection of the most powerful men in England, which included 11 churchmen and 16 powerful landowners.

    The most influential and powerful man of all was probably Brother Aymeric of The Knights Templar1. The Knights Templar were a religious military order, established during the crusades in 1096, which had property and held military and financial power in every European country at this time. They were distinguished by their white surcoat and shield which bore a red cross of St George2.

    King John was staying at the Temple when the Barons first made their demands, and Brother Aymeric appears as a supporter of the king. John made several gifts to the order. The Templars paid £1,000 for confirmation of their privileges in the first year of John's reign. John gave the Templars the Isle of Lundy, land at Huntspill, Cameley, Harewood, 'Radenach', and Northampton.

    Witnessed For The Church

    • Stephen, Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of all England, and cardinal of the holy Roman Church
    • Henry, Archbishop of Dublin
    • William, Bishop of London
    • Peter, Bishop of Winchester
    • Jocelin, Bishop of Bath and Glastonbury
    • Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln
    • Walter, Bishop of Worcester
    • William, Bishop of Coventry
    • Benedict, Bishop of Rochester
    • Master Randulf, Subdeacon and member of the papal household
    • Brother Aymeric Master of the knighthood of the Temple in England

    Witnessed For The State

    • William, Marshal Earl of Pembroke
    • William, Earl of Salisbury
    • William, Earl of Warren
    • William, Earl of Arundel
    • Alan de Galloway, constable of Scotland
    • Warin Fitz Gerald
    • Peter Fitz Herbert
    • Hubert de Burgh Seneschal of Poitou
    • Hugh de Neville
    • Matthew Fitz Herbert
    • Thomas Basset
    • Alan Basset
    • Philip Daubeny
    • Robert de Roppeley
    • John Marshal
    • John Fitz Hugh
    • And other loyal subjects

    King John - A Short History

    The youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, John was born on Christmas Eve, 1167. The youngest of four brothers, he was called 'Lackland' due to his poor prospects of getting land.

    John was not entitled to any lands of his own, as these had already been endowed to his three older brothers, of which Richard 'Lionheart' was the best known. It looked like John's fate would lie with the Church.

    In 1183, his eldest brother, Henry, died and John was offered some of the lands of Aquitaine. The next in succession, Geoffrey, died in a tournament in 1186, making Richard king in his turn. In March of 1199, Richard died at the castle of Chalus, after being mortally wounded by an arrow while besieging the castle. John was now King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjuo. It is forgotten now, but he made a good start as the King and things went well.

    He married Isabella of Gloucester in 1200, and after a short period had the marriage annulled and married Isabella of Angouleme instead. The fact she was engaged did not seem to matter. Now things started to go wrong for John. The French possessions of the English Crown, Normandy, and lands in the west of France were by far3 their most important assets, and they were now under threat from the French Crown.

    The Five Month War

    John's grandfather, King Henry I, had left John a 'Charter of Liberties' put forward by the barons about one hundred years previously. John did not agree with this, and he was also in the process of losing Normandy and his holdings in the west of France. To support this war, his demands on the people were huge.

    In January 1215, a group of barons sought to remind John of the 'charter of liberties' as a safeguard against the King's behaviour. Lord Robert Fitz Walter4 was the leader supported by Saire de Quincey, Eustace de Vesciand and others. This uprising had nothing to do with the ordinary people, who could never have afforded to raise a force of 2,000 knights.

    For a month they chased John from Northampton, to Bedford, to Stamford, to Brackley, to Oxford. Here, on 27 April, the barons delivered their 'Articles of the Barons'. John refused, and at Wallingford on 5 May the barons renounced their allegiance to King John. Fitzwalter was made their leader, and they moved to, and captured London in May, 1215. John was cornered at Windsor Castle in early June, and by 10 June was forced meet the Barons and hold negotiations at Runnymede, a meadow by the River Thames.

    John left for Runneymede from his castle at Odiham5 in Hampshire, he spent the night before signing Magna Carta here. It is thought that Brother Aymeric, master of the Templars, was part of his retinue. The Magna Carta was signed on the 15 June, and on 19 June, the rebels again swore allegiance to the King, with the exception of John's loyal supporter, Gerard de Athyes. De Athyes did not need to swear allegiance, due to a clause in the Magna Carta:

    Clause 50: We shall entirely remove from their bailiwicks the relatives of Gerard de Athyes, so that they shall henceforth have no bailwick in England: Engelard de Cygnes, Andrew Peter and Gyon de Chanceles, Gyon de Cygnes, Geoffrey de Martin and his brothers, Philip Mark and his brothers, and Geoffrey his nephew, and the whole following of them.

    Clause 51. And straightway after peace is restored we shall remove from the realm all the foreign soldiers, crossbowmen, servants, hirelings, who may have come with horses and arms to the harm of the realm.

    This Noble was John's right-hand man and as such the Barons did not trust him. John did not honour this clause but appointed him as custodian of Windsor Castle and later Dover Castle.

    The Six Months That Were Forgotten

    In 1208, John had been excommunicated as he had dissagreed with the Pope's choice of Stephen for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury and so, in order to re-establish himself within the faith, he gave the Pope England. He valued his French holdings as having a far higher value, so he kept these out of the deal. Because of John's excommunication and his deal with the Pope, England technically belonged to Pope Innocent III, and as John was his vassal and this was a rebellion, the Barons were excommunicated and the Magna Carta was declared invalid on 24 September, 1215.

    The Barons attempted to put Magna Carta into action, ending in a fight. The First Baron's War broke out between John and the Barons, with the Barons taking and holding London and the surrounding country. Although John had promised London its own charter and other powers, in exchange for their loyalty, the Londoners opened the gates to the rebels, giving them a massively influential stronghold. John held power over the rest of England and the castles of:

    • Norwich
    • Wisbech
    • Cambridge
    • Nottingham
    • Oxford
    • Wallingford
    • Corfe
    • Winchester
    • Dover
    • Windsor

    The French Invasion

    On 21 May, 1215, a French army landed at Stanhope and Louis Dauphin of France, son of Louis VIII of France and later to become Louis IX, landed at Sandwich and marched to London. The French had previously taken John's French lands, and now it looked like it was time to finish the job. John fell back to Winchester, and moved to Windsor just before the Dauphin laid siege to the city. Dover fell in October. A French army of 35,000 now held London and the Home Counties and would remain there for about a year. Louis also took John's favourite castle at Odiham in Hampshire in 1216 after a siege 15 days - this indicates Odiham was fairly a substantial castle.

    Now, for a short time, things started to turn in John's favour. The Pope excommunicated Louis Dauphin, as the French were about to invade papal territory. Moreover, John made headway in his war with the French. However, on 9 October, John stopped at Lynn (now known as King's Lynn), here he fell ill with dysentery. He managed to move to his Castle Newark where on 18 October, he died. He was buried in Worcester Cathedral.

    London was still held by the French and the Barons who were now subjects of the French King. As Henry III was too young to rule, William Marshall was appointed Regent of England. He created a powerful army to face the French. He lured the French army north to Lincoln where it was defeated so thoroughly that the French surrendered.

    At Runnymede in 1217, the French Dauphin signed a peace treaty and left England, sailing from Portchester Castle in Hampshire. Henry III was now the King of England, and so he reissued the Magna Carta in 1216 in an attempt to prevent the son of Philip of France replacing him as King of England6. A third version of the Magna Carta was issued in 1225, and this was the document eventually ratified in 1295.

    The Magna Carta contained the first establishment in law of 'habius corpus', or habeas corpus ad subjiciendum in full, this being the Latin for 'you may hold the body subject to examination'. This is the law which states that you can't arrest someone unless you charge them with something, and this is one of our few legacies from the Magna Carta.

    The Magna Carta, which had been demanded, fought over, declared invalid by a Pope and practically of no use to any one but the Barons, revised and shortened by Henry III and reissued in 1295, was then consigned to history to be forgotten. Or was it? Echoes of the Magna Carta can be found in these documents:

    Runnymede Meadow Today

    Runnymede meadow today is a pleasant place, a large grassy area in a loop of the Thames flanked by the A308 Windsor Road. There is a shop and tea room and the John F Kennedy memorial, and plenty of car parking. However, there is little to see or do, so take a picnic and soak up the atmosphere, and try to imagine the events of history over the noise of the traffic.

    1Originally known as The Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, shortened to The Knights Templar.2Not to be confused with The Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (aka the Hospitallers), a similar order which was formed at about the same time, and was distinguished by a black surcoat and shield, on which there was a white cross.3In terms of area and wealth.4His surrender of Vaudreuil to the French king in 1203 was the reason for John's loss of Normandy and his holdings in the west of France.5It is worth a look if you are very interested in castles. King John built it between 1207 and 1214, and it was his favorite castle. It was used as a royal jail as in 1346, when David II, King of Scotland was taken there as a prisoner after the Battle of Neville's Cross.6Their claims to the throne were said to be equally valid.

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