Sometimes a piece of paper can change history far more than any battle, invention or assassination. And the Great Charter of 1215, which is believed to have been formally granted by King John of England on 15 June, can safely be regarded as one of the most important pieces of paper of all time.
Better known as the Magna Carta, the charter placed limitations on the monarch’s powers and, in an unprecedented step, attempted to create a mechanism by which the king would be compelled to adhere to the document.
Under the Magna Carta’s “security clause”, a council of 25 barons was supposed to be created to monitor John’s adherence to the charter. If the king was found to be failing then the council could seize his castles and lands.
The document would go on to inspire both the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. But it failed miserably at achieving its original aim – that of securing a peace settlement between King John and his barons.
King John’s woes
Despite some fashionable modern attempts to rehabilitate John’s reputation, it is hard to argue against his reign being an unmitigated disaster. By 1215, he’d already managed to lose almost all of his father’s continental empire to the French, and his subsequent – and cripplingly expensive – attempts to reverse these defeats all proved unsuccessful.
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.
John was not a hearty and warlike man like his older brother Richard the Lionheart, and most of the barons disliked him on a personal level as well. Their leader, Robert FitzWalter, had previously accused John of trying to rape his daughter and was implicated in a plot to assassinate the king in 1212.
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.
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. What they eventually hammered out is the document 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.
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.
Charles ultimately lost that war and was executed. And with him went the last hopes for an absolute monarchy.
A similar struggle against what was seen as unfair and arbitrary taxation occurred in Britain’s American colonies in the next century, and the constitution of the self-declared United States owed a great deal to some of the laws and rights set out in the Magna Carta.
Today, as the US tries to imprint its brand of freedom and democracy on the rest of the world, it is worth remembering that much of this brand is owed to what happened in a meadow in England more than 800 years ago.
Thanks to Dan Jones for his advice on this article. Dan is the author of Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter, published by Head of Zeus and available to buy from Amazon and all good book shops.