1215: Magna Carta

Part five in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1200–1249. In 1215, when England's barons clipped the wings of a tyrannical king, they established principles that still influence British justice 800 years on

Part five in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1250–1299

The year of Magna Carta, 1215, when an English ruler was first subjected to the law, has resonated down the ages as a landmark in Britain’s constitutional history. The Charter itself still lives. Its most fundamental chapters remain on the Statute Book of the UK as barriers to arbitrary rule. They condemn the denial, sale and delay of justice, and forbid imprisonment and dispossession save by lawful judgement of one’s peers (social equals), or the law of the land.

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The Charter was negotiated at Runnymede between 10 and 15 June 1215, with King John riding down each day from Windsor, and the barons encamped in their tents across the meadows beside the Thames. On 15 June, John, tricky to the end, refused more concessions and simply sealed the Charter – “take it or leave it” – thereby cleverly keeping the names of the 25 barons who were to enforce its terms out of the document, this because they had still to be chosen. John hoped the Charter would become no more than a toothless symbol of his generosity to the kingdom; the barons hoped that its terms would be rigorously enforced and indeed extended. The result was civil war.

By September, John had got the pope to quash the Charter. That month, the opposition barons deposed John and offered the throne to Louis, eldest son of King Philip II of France. He came to England in May 1216 and by the time of John’s death in October controlled more than half the kingdom. In the north Alexander II of Scotland had gained Carlisle, and was making good his claims to Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumberland. In Wales, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, ruler of Gwynedd, had swept through the south and taken the royal bases of Cardigan and Carmarthen.

Yet John’s dynasty survived, and with it, paradoxically, the Charter. Its implantation into English political life was the work of the minority government of John’s son, Henry III, who was only nine on his accession. Magna Carta was also a British document. Both Alexander and Llywelyn had been with the rebels from the start, and both benefited from the Charter’s terms, terms which acknowledged “the law of Wales” and invoked for the Welsh, as for Alexander, the principle of judgement by peers. Ultimately, as Wales and Scotland became part of a United Kingdom, their peoples too were embraced by the Charter’s protections. The Charter, however, was no panacea. Since the clause setting up the 25 barons was left out from post-1215 versions of the document, it had no constitutional means of enforcement. It said nothing about how the king’s ministers were to be chosen, patronage distributed and policy decided, major holes which defined the political battleground of the later middle ages.

Yet the Charter made a profound difference. It clamped down on various sources of revenue. Henceforth the “relief” or inheritance tax paid by an earl or baron was to be £100, not the thousands of pounds sometimes demanded by John. It facilitated the spread of the common law and made justice less open to bargaining or bribery. It gave the gentry concessions they could exploit to make the running of local government more acceptable. Above all it asserted a fundamental principle: the king was subject to the law, the law Magna Carta had made. As a result arbitrary rule became more difficult and resistance to it more legitimate.

1215 in context

Scotland, England and Wales were very different societies, but each nation showed the influence of the Norman Conquest

The island of 1215 was one of contrasts with profound differences in social structure between the uplands of Wales and Scotland and lowland England. Hence the way the English, living in nucleated villages, and eating bread, product of their great corn-growing fields, could stigmatise the Scots as bare-buttocked highlanders and ridicule the Welsh as dwellers in dispersed settlements, who consumed nothing but milk and meat.

Yet, in many ways, the peoples of Britain were becoming more alike. The structure of dioceses and parishes, and the houses of Benedictine and Cistercian monks, had spread through the island. The Scottish nobility had been transformed in the 12th century by the kings’ establishment of Anglo-Norman aristrocrats, men of chivalric outlook. The castles, cavalry, armour, seals and documents of the Welsh rulers show how they had been influenced by their Anglo-Norman neighbours. Royal government in Scotland, however, was comparatively decentralised. Wales was divided between competing princes. Only in England was the power of the ruler so insistent and intrusive as to provoke demands for restraints.

The grievances dealt with in Magna Carta had a long history. Many were the product of the way kings since the Norman Conquest had manipulated the judicial process and exploited the rights and revenues which came to them from the new tenurial structures introduced by the Norman Conquest. Already in 1100 Henry I’s Coronation Charter dealt (unavailingly) with the issues of relief, widows, and wardships of children later tackled in Magna Carta. This was why the 1100 Charter was brought out again by the opposition to King John.

John’s Angevin predecessors were also to blame. His father, Henry II (r1154–89), had extended the royal forest, antagonising wide sections of society. John’s brother, Richard I, between 1194 and 1199, had placed novel financial burdens on the country.The need for money to preserve the continental empire against the power of the king of France was a constant problem facing these kings. Another was that the great landed base brought to monarchy by the Norman conquest had slowly been eroded as land was given away to reward followers.

As a result, kings had to exploit other, more politically sensitive, sources of revenue. Of course, the Angevins gave as well as took; they had developed immensely popular legal procedures which lay at the heart of what was later called “the common law”. These were the assizes which the Charter sought to extend not restrict. But here too was a problem, for the new procedures turned on due process of law. No free man was to lose his possessions “unjustly and without judgement”. The year 1215 was the moment when society turned on the king and demanded that he obey his own rules.

Early in his reign John suffered two blows, first a rapid inflation for which he was blameless, and then, in 1204, the loss of Normandy. Thereafter he spent “ten furious years” trying to raise the treasure to get Normandy back. The treasure went in an abortive military campaign in France of 1214. The grievances remained and produced Magna Carta.

When the king became a sitting duck

In 1214 John’s long planned campaign to recover his continental empire had ended in disaster with his allies decisively defeated at Bouvines. John returned to England a sitting duck, his treasure spent. Suspicious and untrustworthy, a womaniser and a murderer, he was loathed by many of his barons. His huge financial exactions over several years had antagonised the wider political community. By early 1215 a large group of barons, many from the North, where his rule had seemed particularly severe, were in league, and were demanding reform. They were abetted by Scotland’s King Alexander and Llywelyn of Wales.

John played for time and summoned a council to meet at Oxford towards the end of April. Instead the barons met in arms at Stamford in Lincolnshire, from where on 5 May they renounced their allegiance to the king, the beginning of civil war. The war was transformed within a fortnight by the Londoners letting the baronial rebels into the city – its walls and wealth protected the baronial cause, and made any quick royalist victory impossible. Yet baronial victory too could not be quick. John retained his castles, many commanded by ruthless military experts. Shrewd use of patronage meant he also retained the loyalty of some of the greatest barons. So the result towards the end of May was a truce and the start of the negotiations which ended with the Charter at Runnymede.

The Charter was the product of the way John and his predecessors has ruled since the Norman Conquest. It also reflected the nature of early 13th-century English society, in part through its omissions. Take the place of women in the Charter. They certainly appeared, for important clauses secured for baronial widows their dowers and inheritances and protected them from forced re-marriage by the king. The clause reflected that baronial women did have property rights: they could inherit land; they received as dower a portion (usually a third) of their husbands’ lands on his death. The clause had a real effect and the 13th century was graced by large numbers of baronesses who spent years as widows controlling extensive lands.

Yet the Charter did nothing to alter the inequalities between men and women. Women only inherited in default of brothers. They virtually never held office, and, for all their influence behind the scenes, played virtually no public part in politics. No women featured in the list of those who had counselled John to concede the Charter. The clauses in the Charter itself were designed not to liberate women, but to protect their male children from having their mothers’ property carried off by second husbands.

Peasants oppressed – no change there then

Even less privileged were the peasants. They made up perhaps 75 per cent of the population, half of them “villeins” which meant they were legally unfree. Peasants featured in the Charter – the stipulation that sheriffs should not force men and villages to work on bridges dealt specifically with their predicament. So did the clause which laid down that fines imposed on villeins were to be reasonable and assessed by men of their neighbourhood. To no one, John promised in one of the most famous clauses, would he sell, deny or delay justice. But there lay the rub, for it was the law itself which made half of the peasantry unfree, leaving them excluded from the king’s courts and at their lords’ mercy in anything concerning the terms on which they held their lands. The Charter did nothing to alter this. Indeed, the protection it did afford peasants was exclusively against the oppressions of royal agents. They were protected from the king so that they could be exploited all the better by their lords.

Against its meagre concern for women and peasants, the Charter catered abundantly for the great players. It gave freedom to the Church (holding over a quarter of England’s land), and re-iterated John’s promise that bishops and abbots could be elected free from royal interference, thus dealing with a major grievance. The church was to play a key part in publicising John’s charter and in supporting the later versions of Henry III. London as we have seen, was the great baronial base. Its population early in the 13th century was perhaps as high as 40,000, making it Britain’s largest city. The Charter protected the privileges of all the kingdom’s cities and boroughs but London’s alone were mentioned by name, and it received an additional promise that it should be free from arbitrary taxation.

Most striking of all was the Charter’s treatment of the knights. In the 1200s there were about 5,000 of them in England’s counties, the backbone of local government. One contemporary chronicler, Ralph of Coggeshall, averred that all the barons who remained loyal to John were deserted by their knights, an exaggeration but it shows the flow of the tide. The charter laid down that the king’s judges hearing assizes in the counties were to sit with four knights of each county, elected in the county court, a testimony both to the self-confidence of the knights and their determination to control the workings of justice in the localities. Another clause empowered 12 knights in each county, again elected in the county court, to investigate and abolish the evil practices of the king’s local officials. The zeal with which the knights went about their work was a major factor in John’s decision to abandon the Charter.

Above all, the Charter met the grievances of the earls and barons. There were around a dozen earls in the early 13th century, and 100 to 200 barons. Tiny numbers, but they controlled a large part of the country’s wealth, and had mostly been in rebellion. Not surprisingly, they stamped their mark on the Charter’s early clauses, making it very much a baronial document. Thus chapter two, as we have seen, fixed the relief of earls and barons at £100. Chapter four protected baronial lands from exploitation by the king when they were in his hands during the minority of an heir. Chapter 14 vested the power to consent to taxation in the hands of a largely baronial assembly. Indeed, only the greater barons, lay and ecclesiastical, were to receive individual letters of summons to it. The implication was that the earls and barons, commanding the allegiances of their tenants, could answer for the realm.

The Charter thus reflected the structures of power in English society. It was also the product of ideas. The king should govern lawfully for the good of his people. He should only punish individuals having obtained a judgement of their peers. A king who defied these principles could be regarded as a tyrant, and might be restrained or even deposed. By 1215 such concepts had a long pedigree and were commonplace amongst John’s opponents. They were sharpened and refined by the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, an internationally famous academic, who played a key role in brokering the 1215 settlement, and in supporting the Charter thereafter. It was these ideas, enshrined in the Charter, which formed its essential legacy, a legacy first for England, and ultimately for the United Kingdom as a whole.

History facts: 1200–1249

£130,000: John’s treasure in 1213

£202 a year: the average baronial income 1160–1220

£15-£20 a year: the 3xpected income of a knight 1216–72

1 penny: minimum daily wage for a labourer in the 13th century

Key years: other important events in the first half of the 13th century

1204 – John loses Normandy. Normandy was finally conquered by Philip II of France (his successful siege of Chateau Gaillard marked the end of John’s rule). This was a pivotal event in European history – now the cross-channel Anglo-Norman state was over. King and barons, like everyone else, would be born and live only in England. They had far more time for the affairs of Britain. The English conquest of Wales in the 1280s and near conquest of Scotland around 1300 was the result.

1216– Llywelyn dominates Wales. Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, the ruler of Gwynedd, established his dominance over native Wales. His vision was of a principality in which he alone did homage to the king of England while the other native rulers did homage to him, in effect as prince of Wales. Two years later, in the Treaty of Worcester, Llywelyn’s territorial conquests and practical (if not theoretical) supremacy were recognised by the king of England.

1217 – The throne is secured for John’s son. Two victories, the first at Lincoln, the second at sea off Sandwich, secured the throne for John’s son, Henry III (below). Prince Louis, eldest son of Philip II of France, resigned his claims and returned to France. Had a French king ruled England, the political structure of Europe would have developed on incalculably different lines.

1221 – The friars move in. The first Dominicans arrived in England, soon followed by the Franciscans. By c 1300 there were more than 100 Dominican and Franciscan houses in Britain. With an emphasis on poverty, preaching and university study, they transformed the religious life of the island. A sermon by an educated preacher now became an everyday part of town life.

1225 – Magna Carta is re-issued. In 1216 and 1217 the minority government of Henry III had reversed John’s policies and issued new versions of Magna Carta. In 1225, yet another version was issued in return for a great tax which saved the dynasty’s continental possessions in Gascony. The 1225 version of the Charter became definitive, the one confirmed by subsequent kings, clauses of which are on the Statute Book today.

1236 – A strong queen emerges. Henry III married Eleanor of Provence, laying the foundations for a remarkable resurgence of queenly power. No queen consort had played a role in English political life since Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 1160s. Eleanor of Provence, made of far sterner stuff than her indulgent husband, changed that. Supporting, and supported by, her relations from Savoy, whom Henry established in England, she was a central figure in the politics of the reign.

1237 – The Treaty of York. Alexander II of Scotland resigned claims to the northern counties of England which Scottish kings had pursued for 200 years. In return he gained substantial territory in Tynedale. He consolidated the Anglo-Scottish peace (it lasted from 1217 to 1296), and was free to concentrate on the conquest of Galloway, where he had taken armies in 1235 and 1236, thus extending the reach of the Scottish state.

1240 – The end of a great Welsh leader. This year marked the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, justly called in his own lifetime Llywelyn the Great. His death ushered in a period in which the king of England recovered his power in Wales. But Llywelyn’s vision of a Welsh principality under a single native ruler, the prince of Wales, was to be realised, if only for the ten years between 1267 and 1277, by his grandson.

1249 – Scotland loses King Alexander. King Alexander II of Scotland (who had come to the throne aged 16 in 1214) died on an expedition to wrest lordship of the isle of Man and the Hebrides from the king of Norway. The expedition summed up the way Alexander had re-orientated Scottish kingship. It would expand not south into England but north and west. The acquisition of Man and Hebrides was ultimately achieved by his son, Alexander III, securing Scotland’s western borders. Together they had constructed a state strong enough to resist English attempts at conquest.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1295: Edward I consolidates English rule

Go back: 1171: The English invasion of Ireland

Part six in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1200–1249

David Carpenter is professor in medieval history at King’s College London. He is author of The Minority of Henry III (Methuen, 1990), The Reign of Henry III (Hambledon, 1996) and The Struggle for Mastery: The Penguin History of Britain, 1066–1284 (Penguin, 2004)

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This article was first published in the August 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine