A Brief History of Magna Carta

Reblogged with real pleasure from Egham Museum where I am proud to be a trustee.


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’.

While his father, Henry II, was complicit in the murder of his own Archbishop of Canterbury and faced rebellions led by his own sons, encouraged by his wife, and John’s elder brother, Richard the Lionheart, cost the country a fortune for his crusade and ransom, both Henry and Richard were were imposing figures and broadly successful in their wars. John by contrast was a loser. He lost his dispute with the Pope, lost his families lands in France to the French King Philip Augustus and would die with his capital still in the hands of rebel barons and a French prince invited to replace him.

The final straw came in July 1214 when John’s long awaited and costly campaign to recapture Normandy, Anjou and Poitou ended in catastrophe. John’s French allies in the South West melted away and his Flemish and German allies attacking from the North East were defeated by the French army at the Battle of Bouvines. The road from Bouvines to Runnymede was short and straight. When John returned and began trying to raise money for another campaign and to pay off the mercenaries from the campaign just lost the Barons refused. A group of Barons then formally renounced their allegiance to John, effectively declaring war, and marched on London.

Remarkably when the rebel Barons reached London the gates of the capital were opened to them without a fight. John was now compelled to come to the negotiating table. With John based at Windsor and the rebels, coming down from London, encamped at Staines, the negotiations began at Runnymede. With no obvious contender for the crown the rebel barons instead looked to a charter to redress their grievances. Armed and with a list of demands prepared, the Articles of the Barons, the rebels set out creating a legal tool to constrain the king. With little option other than to assent and buy some time, John agreed to their terms and set his seal to the document that would become known as Magna Carta.

This great charter was to have a short lifespan however. Once John secured the papal annulment he sought, war resumed and it looked for a while that John might have gained the upper hand and defeat the rebels. However, disaster then struck for John. He lost the royal treasure in the quicksand of the Wash and then contracted dysentery and died. He nine year old son, Henry, became Henry III, King of England.

Henry’s Regent, William Marshal, then did something very politically astute. He reissued Magna Carta, stripped of its most contentious clauses, as a freely given manifesto of good government. This combined with a stunning victory over the rebels at Lincoln and the King’s young age took the wind out of the sails of the rebels and peace was restored.

Magna Carta, saved from being a footnote of history by William Marshal, then embarked on its remarkable career of being used to hold those in power to account. Reissued by successive monarchs and serving as inspiration for generations of reformers, radicals, statesmen and lawyers since, the failed peace treaty became a powerful symbol of liberty and the rule of law.


About Roger Nield MBE

Safety Director for the SMPL Organisation and supporting our Vulnerable Veterans Programme.
This entry was posted in Egham Museum, Reblogged, Spotlight and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Brief History of Magna Carta

  1. Reblogged this on Hart Residents Community Website and commented:

    Most Hart residents will know that King John travelled from Odiham Castle to Runnymede and the confrontation that led to Magna Carta. Well worth a visit and a toehold on the Magna Carta trail.

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