King John Was Not A Good Man…*

It’s a big week in History Land. History bloggers, history buffs, #twitterstorians** and re-enactors are all aflutter about the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on Friday. But today we pause to recognize another historical anniversary, one that is less flashy and more ambiguous–the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymeade in 1215.

[If you want an even shorter explanation of the Magna Carta–with a level of snark that I have not allowed myself–watch this video from the British Library. (Who knew the British Library had attitude?) If you’re reading this via e-mail, you may need to click through to your browser.]

Eight hundred years ago, forty English barons rebelled against what they perceived as excessive tax demands on the part of King John, baby brother of Richard the Lionhearted.*** Rebellion against Norman kings was nothing new. (They were often perceived to be milking England to pay for wars in France–and they often were.) The fact that the disgruntled barons were able to force King John to negotiate was. The Magna Carta was the result of those negotiations: sixty-nine clauses designed to protect the rights of a small elite group of men. Many of the clauses were very specific to the time and place: the removal of fish weirs from the Thames, for instance, had little impact on the larger course of history. Others had enormous, and probably unintended, consequences, most notably the idea that no man, whether king, baron, fishmonger or policeman, is above the law.

In the short run, the Magna Carta was a bust. King John immediately sent messengers to the Pope asking (or perhaps demanding) that the charter be annulled. The Pope, who did not like the charter’s terms and may well have been troubled by the precedent of subjects forcing legal changes on ruling monarchs, issued a papal bull describing the charter as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people” and declaring it “null and void of all validity for ever.”****  With the charter void, civil war quickly broke out between king and barons. King John raised an army of mercenaries, which suggests that his position was not a popular one. The barons renounced their allegiance to John and offered the crown to his cousin, Prince Louis of France. (A tactic that Parliament would emulate several centuries later in the Glorious Revolution.) The war, and the immediate legal value of the Magna Carta, ended when John died of dysentery on October 18, 1216.

From the barons’ point of view, John’s nine-year-old son Henry looked like a better choice than Louis for king. (Under-age kings provide so many opportunities for the nobility to grab power.) The young king issued three revised versions of the Magna Carta during his reign, the first as a condition of succeeding his father on the throne.

Over the long run, the historical importance of the Magna Carta depended on one clause, buried deep in the original document and seen as relatively insignificant by its framers:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of is rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, not will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
To no one will we see, to no one deny or delay right or justice.*****

When this clause was first written it applied to only a few: “free men” were an elite in a society in which freedom as we know it was rare and the reference to men was literal. In the intervening eight centuries, it has become the foundation for the right to justice and a free trial for all within British Common Law, the American Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–an ideal that we value even though we do not always live up to it.

*To quote A.A. Milne, who was probably referring to an entirely different King John: “King John was not a good man. He had his little ways. And sometimes no one spoke to him for days and days and days.” “King John’s Christmas”. Now We Are Six

**Yes, you read that correctly. Historians on twitter are #twitterstorians.

***Who was not exactly the heroic king that popular history makes him out to be. But that’s another story.

****Not one of his infallible days.

*****“We” being King John and the mouse in his pocket.

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