How the Magna Carta Changed the Course of History | History Hit

How the Magna Carta Changed the Course of History

Celeste Neill

11 May 2023
A romanticised 19th-century recreation of King John signing Magna Carta
Image Credit: James William Edmund Doyle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Magna Carta, officially granted by King John of England on 15 June 1215, stands as one of the most influential and pivotal documents in human history. This remarkable charter revolutionised the balance of power by placing limitations on the monarch’s authority and establishing an essential mechanism for holding the king accountable.

A key provision within the Magna Carta, known as the ‘security clause,’ mandated the formation of a council comprising 25 barons entrusted with monitoring King John’s compliance with the charter. In the event of the king’s failure, this council possessed the authority to seize his castles and lands, effectively ensuring his adherence to the principles outlined within the document.

While the Magna Carta did not initially achieve its intended objective of securing peace between King John and the barons, its profound impact reverberated throughout history. This groundbreaking charter served as a catalyst for transformative events such as the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Its enduring legacy remains a testament to the tremendous power held within a mere piece of paper, capable of shaping the trajectory of nations and societies.

King John’s woes

Amidst contemporary efforts to revive King John’s image, historical evidence overwhelmingly supports his reign as an unequivocal disaster. By the year 1215, John had already suffered near-total loss of his father’s continental empire to the French. Subsequently, his desperate and financially burdensome endeavours to reclaim these territories proved futile.

King John on a stag hunt, 14th century. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: British Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

After a particularly crushing defeat to the French at Bouvines in 1214, John was once again humiliated and forced to pay compensation money to his rival across the channel, Philip II.

Under the feudal system at the time, the money and soldiers required for foreign wars came directly from the barons, who each had their own lands and a private army. Having poured large amounts of money into John’s pockets for his unsuccessful military campaigns, they were unimpressed with the lack of return, and after Bouvines began to show serious signs of resentment.

King John, in stark contrast to his valiant and martial older brother Richard the Lionheart, lacked the same robust and warlike demeanour. Furthermore, John’s personal characteristics did not endear him to the majority of the barons. Their leader, Robert FitzWalter, felt deep animosity towards John, having previously accused him of attempting to assault his daughter. In addition, FitzWalter was implicated in a plot to assassinate the king in 1212.

Historical records attest to the unpopularity of King John among the barons, both due to his perceived personal failings and his alleged misconduct. The strained relationship between John and the barons, epitomised by the antagonism towards him by influential figures like Robert FitzWalter, further complicated the political landscape during his reign.

The dispute’s escalation

Throughout the early months of 1215, John’s attempts to get the pope involved – along with his secret hiring of thousands of French mercenaries – only escalated the dispute. After talks held in London failed, the barons renounced their feudal ties to the king in April and began to march on England’s major cities. This included London, which opened its gates to them without a fight.

With Pope Innocent III refusing to get directly involved, the influential Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton – who was respected by both sides – organised official peace talks. These were to take place at Runnymede, a meadow outside London, in June.

Dominic Selwood says documents are the perfect window through which to watch a country develop.
Listen Now

This location was considered a safe middle-ground between Royalist Windsor Castle and the rebel fortress at Staines. There, John, Langton and the senior barons met with their foremost supporters, and began the seemingly impossible task of finding a resolution that would suit everyone.

Following intense deliberations and negotiations, the outcome of their efforts materialised into the historic charter of rights known as the Magna Carta.

What the Magna Carta sought to achieve

Disputes between barons and kings were nothing new – and nor were written solutions – but the Magna Carta went beyond individual baronial complaints and began to address the overall powers and responsibilities of the king at any given time.

The concessions made do not read as particularly radical to modern eyes, but the clauses outlining protection from arbitrary imprisonment (albeit for the barons), and of the church from overt royal interference are concepts now enshrined at the heart of the western idea of freedom.

In addition, the charter placed limitations on feudal payments to the monarch.

Limiting the powers of the king in any way was a hugely controversial move at the time, as evidenced by the pope later decrying the Magna Carta as “shameful and demeaning … illegal and unjust”.

With such humiliating and unprecedented checks put upon the king, civil war was always likely – especially after the barons did indeed create a security council to ensure that John kept his word.

The Magna Carta (originally known as the Charter of Liberties) of 1215. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reissues of the Magna Carta

John later reneged on his granting of the Magna Carta, asking Pope Innocent III for permission to reject it on the grounds that he had been forced to sign it. The pontiff agreed and in August declared the charter invalid. This action sparked the outbreak of the First Barons’ War which would last for two years.

When John died in October 1216, his son Henry became king and the Magna Carta was reissued shortly after – though this time with the security clause and other parts omitted. This helped to bring about peace and set the basis for Henry’s continued rule.

Over the next few decades, the struggle between the barons and the monarchy continued and the Magna Carta was reissued several more times.

Indeed, the final reissue of the charter didn’t come about until 1297, by which point Henry’s son Edward I was on the throne. In 1300, sheriffs were then given the responsibility of enforcing the charter across the kingdom.

The charter’s legacy

Over the coming centuries, the Magna Carta waxed and waned in its significance. After becoming something of a relic, the charter saw a resurgence in the 17th century when it was used as inspiration for the Parliamentarians (who had similar complaints to the barons) in their war against King Charles I.

King Charles I after original by van Dyck. Image credit: Follower of Anthony van Dyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles ultimately lost that war and was executed. And with him went the last hopes for an absolute monarchy.

A parallel battle against perceived unjust and capricious taxation unfolded in the American colonies of Britain during the following century. The formation of the self-proclaimed United States was heavily influenced by key principles and legal rights established in the Magna Carta.

Tags: King John Magna Carta

Celeste Neill