Happy Birthday Magna Carta! 1215 to 2015

Happy Birthday Magna Carta! 1215 to 2015

RunneymedeThe Magna Carta was signed at Runneymede. Photo Courtesy of Brian Slater.

It’s a well-known story taught in schools nearly everywhere. On the 15th of June 1215, a group of disgruntled barons corralled an “evil” king into signing a Great Charter outlining the liberties to which the barons and lords of England felt entitled. The place was Runnymede, England and the rest is history.

The king was King John, youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. His path to the throne came through three dead older brothers and a young murdered nephew. John, unfortunately, was not a very good king. His reign was beset by wars with France and with a long feud with the Pope. Both led to John’s capitulation at Runnymede.

When his parents ruled, the Plantagenet Empire stretched from Ireland to the Spanish border. In effect the Plantagenets ruled not only all of England, some of Ireland, but half of France as well. It cost a lot of money to run an empire that big, put down rebellions and deal with the warring French. This meant high taxes on the feudal lords. The English barons were especially upset about their money being used for the many wars on the Continent.

After his father died, John’s brother Richard became King of England. Only he spent most of his reign abroad or on a very expensive Crusade or imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, which required a hefty ransom. More money was needed so more taxes were levied on the barons.

Then Richard died in April 1199. His younger brother was a ‘Johnny-on-the-spot’ to claim the throne and was crowned King in May. But new King John appeared to have forgotten about his older brother Geoffrey’s son, Arthur. Arthur wanted the throne too and he actually had the rightful claim.

So with the help of the French, he embarked on a campaign against John. He was captured 1 August 1202 and imprisoned. In April 1203, poor young Arthur died mysteriously. Some say John murdered him. Others say, Arthur died while trying to escape John’s imprisonment. Regardless, John’s last pesky obstacle to the throne was gone.

It’s probably safe to say that no one liked John. Superficially charming, he was actually mean, cruel, paranoid and vindictive. He was also a terrible military leader. In just five years into his reign, he had lost most of the Plantagenets’ continental holdings – Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Touraine – to the French. And for the next 10 years, John continued taxing the barons to raise money for an army to take back his French holdings. The English barons were really getting tired of this.

After all his troubles with France, John then decided to tick off the Pope. This was not a wise move. In the 13th-century, England and all Europe were Catholic. In 1207, Pope Innocent III had chosen Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. John wanted John de Grey, the Bishop of Norwich. The Pope said no. So John declared anyone who recognized Stephen as Archbishop was an enemy of the king. He then expelled all the monks of Canterbury, including Stephen, from England. They all ended up in France.

But the Pope had a bigger weapon to John’s expulsion. It was Papal Interdiction. For the next five years, no Catholic in England could observe the Sacraments. In theory, there was to be no burials, no marriages, no baptisms, no Mass. This was too much.

First off, to the Medieval mind, for John to lose so much land and power in battle was a sure sign of God’s withdrawal of favor. And after years of interdiction, it may not have been too much for the English to see John could be perhaps the “anti-Christ” of Revelation prophecy.

With John’s troubles at home brewing, the French began massing for an invasion to free England from their ungodly King. After suffering the humiliating loss of his French holdings, John really didn’t want to lose England too. So he decided to make nice with the Pope.

In 1213 at Dover, England, John “surrendered” to the Pope and declared himself a Papal vassal. He even went so far in March of 1215 as to take the Crusader’s oath. Like so many of his other oaths, he never intended to fulfill it.

But it was all getting to be too much for the Barons. They had had enough of bad King John. For some time, the Barons and Archbishop Stephen Langton had been putting the finishing touches on their demands. It was a treaty of sorts with the working title of “Articles of the Barons.” Okay, not as catchy as Magna Carta, but it would do for now.

In May of 1215, the Barons took an unusual and dangerous step. They renounced their homage to the King in a move known as diffidation. This was a big deal. To rebel against the King was treason and punishable by death. But to renounce and declare they were no longer vassals of their liege lord meant they considered themselves not to be treasonous since they had no obligation to the King any longer. I doubt that John appreciated the Barons fine legal nuance. If the Barons lost, John no doubt would have laughed at their diffidation defense and treated them all as traitors. After all, John was known for starving his prisoners to death for much less offences.

The Barons then seized London and were preparing to ask the King of France for help. John still had the superior army, and both sides had a lot to lose – John his kingdom and the Barons their heads. In an attempt to avoid war, they met at Runnymede, which was halfway between London, the Barons stronghold and Windsor, where the King was staying. The Barons brought their Magna Carta with them.


So first and foremost, the Magna Carta was a peace treaty between the King and his Barons. But in theory, the Magna Carta was seen as a means to restraining the king’s power, establishing a rule of law and placing the king below the law. It also offered legal protection to the Catholic Church, relieved the Barons from over-taxation as well as a minutia of other feudal details.

After signing it, John pretty much ignored it. The Pope nullified it nine weeks later. Then John died in 1216 and his disastrous reign was over. (Anyone else wonder why there has never been a King John II?)

His 9-year-old son, Henry III, reissued the Magna Carta, as a sign of goodwill and the promise of a fair reign. The King’s Chief Minister, William Marshall, attached his seal as did the papal legate.

Now as a papal-sanctioned document and a King’s Charter, Magna Carta had real authority. Henry III reissued it again in 1225 stripping it of half of its feudal clauses. It’s actually this version of Henry III’s whose text has evolved into written law.

The original Magna Carta is 3,550 words long with 63 clauses, written entirely in Latin and in tiny, tiny handwriting. Perhaps the Magna Carta is most famous for these two clauses – 39 and 40 – which reverberate down the eight centuries and speak to us today:

39. No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseized or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, not will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

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

To many, these simple words were the definition of liberty and freedom. In addition to curbing the “tyranny of kings” in England, the Magna Carta traveled across the ocean to play a part in the American Revolution. The founding fathers turned to the Magna Carta for reference in asserting their liberties against another tyrannical king, George III.

Through the centuries, the Magna Carta has come to symbolize justice, the rule of law, the rights of men and women to live freely in a just society and the right to oppose an oppressive government. That alone has been enough to carry this parchment for 800 years. England considers the Magna Carta its’ cornerstone of freedom. Americans consider the document to be an ancestor to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

In their excellent book, 1215, The Year of Magna Carta, authors Danny Danziger and John Gillingham stated regarding the Magna Carta, “As a symbol of the struggle against tyranny, it will always retain its value.”

Winston Churchill proclaimed …

“Here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.”

So here we are 800 years later still celebrating the ideals this document embodies. Only four copies of the 1215 Magna Carta remain – two are at the British Library, one is at Lincoln Cathedral, the other at Salisbury Cathedral.

And for one glorious day on February 3, 2015, all four known copies of the Magna Carta will be on display at the British Library. A lucky 1,215 people will be able to view all four documents together.

Happy Birthday Magna Carta!