Alternate history: what if Magna Carta hadn’t been written?

Magna Carta remains one of history's most important documents, a charter sealed by King John in 1215 that placed limits on the power of English kings. But how might John's reign have been different if Magna Carta didn't exist? Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Nicholas Vincent about how King John could have avoided his rebellious barons’ demands...

Illustration of King John ripping up Magna Carta

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes asks Nicholas Vincent what if… Magna Carta had not been written?

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More than 800 years after being sealed, Magna Carta still holds a special place as one of history’s most important documents, declaring that no one, not even a monarch, is above the law. It’s a cornerstone for the rights of individuals, and a symbol of democracy, influencing countless thinkers and leaders throughout history – from Thomas Jefferson to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Yet in 1215, when King John reluctantly gave it the royal seal, it was primarily a peace treaty – and to this end, the ‘Great Charter’ failed miserably.

War between John and his barons resumed within months of the document being sealed, swiftly followed by a French invasion of England. So, if Magna Carta had never existed, very little would have changed in the short term says Nicholas Vincent, professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia. “The tensions between the rival parties would have been as great, or greater, with or without the charter,” he says. “Neither side trusted the other to believe their promises of peace. John deserves his fair share of the blame, having systematically undermined trust between ruler and subjects over the previous 16 years.”

The king treated his barons poorly and taxed them heavily, lost English lands in France humiliatingly, and even seemed to have forfeited God’s favour. “By challenging the right of the Pope to appoint an archbishop of Canterbury – Stephen Langton – John alienated the Church, and was branded a tyrant by many of its leaders”, says Vincent.

John was a disastrously bad king,” he adds. “At the same time, he was very unlucky. He ruled at a time of economic upheaval and against a background of near-permanent Anglo-French warfare. His principal rival, Philip II of France, was better both at appearing to rule with justice in peacetime and with military vigour in times of war.”

To avoid the circumstances that led to the creation of Magna Carta, John would have needed more success in his military campaigns and improved relations with the church. Had he defended Normandy in 1204 or won the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 – “as might easily have been the case”, Vincent says – then the rebellion back home might have been deferred or entirely prevented. The barons might not have taken up arms, either, if John had enjoyed the full support of his bishops.

When the barons rebelled, John risked being forced into peace talks – an inevitability after the barons’ capture of London. The capital was essential to foreign trade and England’s primary export, wool, as well as being the centre of John’s government. The power of the monarchy had been severely weakened before the peace treaty – the Articles of the Barons, which would become Magna Carta – even came into being.

“Sooner or later, the absolute authority of the crown would have been challenged by the English barons and the church, claiming to represent a wider ‘community of the realm’,” says Vincent. “Similar things happened across 12th and 13th-century Europe without producing iconic documents such as Magna Carta.”

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_

But in the absence of Magna Carta, could another English document from around this time have achieved the same level of significance? A key influence for Magna Carta was the ‘Coronation Charter’ of Henry I, issued in 1100. “This, too, attempted to set limits on the king’s ability to tax or exploit his subjects,” says Vincent. “By 1215, however, many of the specific terms of Henry’s charter would have appeared outmoded or irrelevant.”

Another potential option was the ‘Unknown Charter’, which was drawn up by barons and bishops between January and June 1215 as an intermediate text to deal with their own current problems and demands. And it was “even more radical and ambitious” than the finalised Articles of the Barons, says Vincent. “Had Magna Carta never happened, we would still have the ‘Unknown Charter’ as evidence of the determination of the rebels to impose the rule of written law upon a tyrannical king.”

But Magna Carta, a failure of a peace treaty, only grew in significance after John died in 1216. He was succeeded by the nine-year-old Henry III, who reissued Magna Carta in the hope of appeasing the barons so they would help expel the French. Henry then reissued the charter twice more, establishing both its place in English law, and, as Vincent puts it, its totemic reputation.

How much of Magna Carta is still law today?

With each reissue of Magna Carta in the 13th century, clauses were stripped away, either because they had become outdated or proven contentious. Of the 63 clauses presented to John in 1215, only four remain on the statute books.

That raises another intriguing question: what if Magna Carta had been written, but John had lived longer? Before his death, John had ignored its terms, and Pope Innocent III even annulled the document, declaring it “null and void of all validity for ever”. If John had lived long enough to defeat the barons, then the charter might have been forgotten entirely. Vincent elaborates: “The war could only have ended with John’s total victory or his total annihilation, deposition and probably murder. Of these outcomes, the former was much more likely: John had greater resources, both in money and manpower, and the barons had made only an uneasy alliance with the king of France.”

“Had John won his war, we can assume that his vengeance would have been cruel and comprehensive,” concludes Vincent. “None of the promises he offered in Magna Carta would have been kept. England would have been set on the road to absolutism, deprived of all protection by written law or constitutional precedent. Only the uncertain mercy of the king himself stood between the subject and the threat of despotism.”

What was Magna Carta?

Magna Carta (‘The Great Charter’) was granted the royal seal by King John on 15 June 1215. The English barons had rebelled against the taxing tyrant and, after capturing London, forced the king to attend peace negotiations at a meadow called Runnymede – halfway between their respective strongholds.

The original document, called the Articles of the Barons, failed to make peace, but the actions of John’s successor, Henry III, in reissuing the charter ensured its legacy.

By the end of the 13th century, Magna Carta was a totem for English law and democratic principles. While not explicitly mentioning them, it gave root to legal precedents such as trial by jury, habeas corpus, no taxation without representation, and a common council of parliament to seek popular consent.

In the centuries since, its influence has been felt around the world, in documents such as the US Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Nicholas Vincent is professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia. His book John: An Evil King? is due to be published by Allen Lane in 2020. He was speaking to freelance writer Jonny Wilkes

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This content first appeared in the June 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed

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