Wednesday, 1 October 2014

King John and Magna Carta

One of the four extant copies of Magna Carta
David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013) 
See also here and here.

The sudden death of Richard I at Limoges in 1199 led to the accession of his brother, John and one of the most disastrous and
Richard I's castle, Chateau
Gaillard, that fell to the French
in 1204
momentous reigns in history.  Within five years of his accession, he had lost Anjou and Maine (1203) and Normandy (1204) to the French king, Philip Augustus. In 1206 he was forced to recognise Philip’s conquest of the northern part of Aquitaine. John was left Gascony as his sole French territory. The consequences were momentous.

‘The Capetian conquest of Normandy was a turning point in European history. It made the Capetian kings dominant in western Europe, and ended the cross-Channel Anglo-Norman state. [Although] England did not cease to be part of the “community of Europe”… the days of the absentee kings were over…From 1204…kings of England for the first time since 1066 were just that…Henceforth the high aristocracy would be born and hold lands only in England. They could become as English as everyone else.’ (Carpenter 270)
King John on a stag hunt

John's exactions

In England the early years of John’s reign were peaceful, as the country was governed by two able officials, Geoffrey fitz Peter, the justiciar, and Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury, the chancellor. The ‘tranquil’ period came to an end with the return of John from his disaster in Normandy.   

Obsessed with amassing the money needed to win back Normandy, he engaged in frantic tours round the country in search of income, presiding over the greatest level of financial exploitation since the Conquest.  In 1204 he appointed new sheriffs who were expected to raise substantial additional sums, which they recouped through illicit extortions. He exploited royal forests, imposing huge fines. He taxed the Jews, who then put pressure on their debtors. His most lucrative measure was the ‘aid’ that he levied in 1207, the demand for 13 per cent of the value of everyone’s rent and moveable property, largely corn and animals, raising an eye-watering  £60,000. These policies affected not merely those at the top, the barons and the church, but also knights, freemen and peasants. 

However, the barons felt they were under particular pressure: baronial widows were fined for staying single or marrying whom they wished; scutage, the tax paid by the barons in lieu of military service, was levied with increasing frequency and severity. While John succeeded in tripling his revenue, magnate indebtedness to the crown increased by 380 per cent in the period 1199 to 1208. Many of these magnates also saw their castles and estates arbitrarily confiscated by the king. The barons’ resentment was personal in many cases, as it was widely believed that John was tampering with their wives and daughters. 

Henry II’s reforms of the justice system were undermined. John virtually closed down the common bench at Westminster and the routine assizes heard by justices in eyre. Instead, cases had to be heard by judges who were travelling with the king. The whole common law system was undermined.

Even by the standards of the time John’s cruelty was shocking. His nephew Arthur of Brittany was murdered in prison. Matilda de Braose, the wife of a rebellious baron, was starved to death in the dungeons of Windsor castle along with her eldest son in 1211.

The interdict

John also plunged into a quarrel with the Pope, Innocent III. Following Archbishop Hubert Walter’s death in July 1205 he had a dispute with the monks of Canterbury over his successor. In 1207, following intense papal pressure, the monks elected Stephen Langton, an Englishman, and an internationally renowned biblical scholar. When John refused to accept Langton, the pope imposed an Interdict in March 1208. This meant that no church services were to be permitted except the baptism of infants and the confession of the dying. The saints’ days were no longer celebrated and the dead were denied Christian burial. In November 1209 John was excommunicated. Undaunted, John used the Interdict as an excuse to seize church revenues.

War with France

By 1213 John was facing a crisis. King Philip, who was in touch with English dissidents, was preparing an invasion of England to be led by his son Louis. In May John gathered an army in Kent. In the same month he reached an accommodation with the pope, agreeing to accept Langton, to receive back exiled bishops and barons, and to allow the church the right of free election. On 20 July he was absolved from excommunication and the interdict was lifted a year later. But he was forced to make England and Ireland papal fiefs and to pay compensation to the papacy. Freed from external threats, he sailed for Poitou, but he was forced to retreat, was defeated at Bouvines in Flanders in July 1214. After this disaster, his authority was shattered, and his kingdom was seething with discontent.

The barons' revolt

On John’s return in October 1214 he was confronted by a determined resistance, led by a group of northern barons, who were heavily in debt to the crown and who had refused to go on the expedition to France. They sent envoys to the pope and by early 1215 they had forced John into negotiations. John’s response was to play for time. He summoned a council to Oxford to meet at the end of April 1215, but instead of attending, the opposition barons mustered in arms at Stamford in Lincolnshire, On 5 May, under the leadership of Robert fitz Walter, they formally defied the king. Of the c. 200 barons in England, two thirds were now in rebellion. On 17 May the barons took London, depriving John of his financial resources. However he retained the allegiance of many barons, a large number of castles and he was able to draw supplies from Ireland. This meant a military stalemate.

From 27 May negotiations began in earnest. The baronial programme comprised the Coronation Charter of Henry I, linked to twelve entirely new provisions, whose number soon went up to forty-nine. After five days of intense negotiation at Runnymede near Windsor, John issued his Charter, later called Magna Carta on 15 June. After some haggling, with Stephen Langton acting as a broker between the two sides, the barons accepted the Charter on 19 June.

Magna Carta

The sixty-three interlocking chapters of Magna Carta, a hotchpotch of the local and the universal, placed unprecedented and profound limitations on the monarchy. The Charter established the principle of taxation by consent, and forbade the monarch to seize land arbitrarily. Its most celebrated clauses were a critique of the way John had governed and are still part of the law of the land.
39: ‘No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised [stripped of his possessions] or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined…except by the lawful judgement of his peers or the law of the land.’40: ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.’
But though these were restrictions on the power of the king, other clauses accepted the new common law procedures of Henry II and sought to make them more readily available. The bench of justices was to sit permanently at Westminster to hear common pleas, and judges were to tour the country four times a year to hear the petty assizes. The king remained in control of central government. The chancery still issued writs and charters on his sole orders, and he could appoint any ministers he chose. 

Magna Carta has been seen as embodying selfish class interests. The barons were the most obvious beneficiaries and unfree men still remained without rights. However, this is not the whole story.

  1. The liberty of the church was guaranteed. 
  2. Chapter 13 confirmed the liberties of cities and boroughs. 
  3. The knights were also given rights in their neighbourhoods as a protection against the exactions of central government. Twelve from each county, elected locally, were to investigate and abolish abuses by the king’s local officials. Four knights, locally elected, were to sit with the itinerant justices and hear the petty assizes.
  4. The Charter gave rights ‘to all freemen’, a ‘vast and diverse group of people, including many peasants’.  (A freeman was defined as one who did not do servile work for a lord, such as bringing in the harvest.) 
  5. Above all, it established the principle, laid down in Henry I’s Coronation Charter, that the king should be a just ruler not a tyrant. He had to obey his own rules. Even though trial by jury and habeas corpus were not explicit in the Charter, the principle that the ruling authority must be subject to law was established.

The French invasion

By the late summer John had gone back on the principles of Magna Carta, and gained the support of the pope. However, at a great assembly in September the barons deposed him and offered the throne to Louis of France. Louis landed in Kent on 21 May 1216, captured Rochester and entered London. John died at Newark castle on the night of 17-18 October, leaving his nine-year-old son, Henry, as his heir. His kingdom was in the grip of civil war, with half the land occupied by the French. 

In September 1217 Louis was forced to resign his claims to the throne and he returned to France. In November, as many former rebels renewed their homage to the young king, another version of the Charter was issued, alongside a new charter regulating the bounds and administration of the royal forest. For the first time the older charter was given the name Magna Carta, to distinguish it from the smaller charter.  

Magna Carta: afterlife

In 1225 the Charter was again reissued, with a large chapter (number 35), which regulated the frequency of the shire courts and limited the exactions of the sheriffs at their annual check.  From this time it was continually copied and read out in the county courts. Even though there was no constitutional means of enforcing it, the general principle that the king was subject to the laws was widely known. At every moment of constitutional crisis in the 13th century it was reissued.

The jurist Henry de Bracton wrote
‘The king must not be under man but under God and under the law, because the law makes the king... for there is no rex where will rules rather than lex.’
With the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century the text of the Charter began to circulate more widely. Although Shakespeare managed to write King John without mentioning it (!) the jurist Sir Edward Coke argued that Magna Carta was the bedrock of English law. In 1628 he declared:
 ‘Magna Carta is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign’.
The Charter legitimised opposition to the king. It was published by order of the Long Parliament. Ship Money was seen as against Magna Carta. It was exported to Massachusetts and India.

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