The birth of liberty

Magna Carta, meaning the Great Charter, is a seminal document in English legal and constitutional history. While many of its clauses dealt with particular 13th century concerns, clauses 39 and 40 established the enduring principle that even the King was subject to the law.

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Magna Carta was granted by King John at Runnymede in 1215, an attempt to restore peace between rebellious barons and the crown. Containing 63 clauses and over 3550 words, Magna Carta set out to address a wide range of grievances that the Barons and others had not just with John but with the style of rule that characterised the entire Plantagenet dynasty.

A treaty fails

As a peace treaty Magna Carta failed. King John dispatched agents to Rome to seek a papal annulment of the charter, which Pope Innocent III duly issued. While John and the Pope had previously been at odds over the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, a dispute that had led to the churches of England being closed for over 5 years and John’s excommunication, the English King had become a dutiful son of the Church in an effort to forestall rebellion and a French invasion. With Magna Carta annulled and John refusing to return the castles and lands he had seized from his Barons, a key condition of the charter, civil war resumed.

Why did we need a charter?

How had this come to pass? What had John done to push his barons to rebellion and why had the barons rallied around a charter instead of a rival claimant to the throne?

The barons’ complaints against John were many and varied. John was cruel, untrusting and untrustworthy, rapacious in his efforts to raise money and lecherous with the wives and daughters of the great men of the realm. He was suspected of murdering his 16 year old nephew, Prince Arthur of Brittany, who had a rival claim to the throne and had raised an army against John and imprisoned and starved to death the wife and son of one of his former favourites at court, William de Braose, when the latter fell from favour. He exploited traditional feudal dues to raise money for his campaigns to recapture lands he lost in France and sold wardships and widows to the highest bidder. John installed and gave favour to new ‘foreign’ men at court and failed to prevent his men abusing their power, seizing property without consent or compensation. While many of these characteristics were not uncommon in medieval kings, John’s combination of particular faults and few redeeming features made him especially bad among a family known as the ‘devil’s brood’.