Magna CartaMagna Carta: The Birth of Liberty
by Dan Jones

Last year was the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta. To commemorate the occasion, LibriVox recorded a collection of essays — (Magna Carta Commemoration Essays, edited by Henry Elliot Malden) — which had originally been published on the 700th Anniversary in 1915. I’ve got to admit that this was some of the toughest reading I’ve ever done for LibriVox. Dry, scholarly, and littered with snatches of Latin and French. True, I did learn a lot from it, and found it edifying. But it was learning purchased at the cost of much mental sweat, rather like being back in a tough college course all over again.

Now, months later, browsing through the “new nonfiction” display at my library branch, I discovered this account of the Magna Carta by Dan Jones. This one kept me engrossed all the way through, without ever finding it a struggle. My sister Meg and I used to say that we “liked our history with the people in it” — and that pretty much explains the difference. The book we read for LibriVox last year was all analysis and no people. This new book is filled with people, their desires and activity and personality. Yes, there’s also analysis, but that follows in the wake of the human story.

The story begins with the period of anarchy known to contemporaries as “the Shipwreck”, the two-decade war between rival claimants to the English throne, Stephen and his cousin Matilda. (I mentally “place” this period in my mind as the era which forms the backdrop for Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mystery novels.) In 1154, Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet became King Henry II. In a reaction against the chaos of the recent past, Henry asserted royal power aggressively, setting the tone for the other Plantagenet kings who followed him. The story of the constant power struggles between Plantagenet kings and English barons and churchmen is the topic of the first half of this book.

Magna Carta King Taxes BaronsIn the chain of feudal obligations which structured medieval society, from the king at the top to the peasants at the bottom, traditional obligations bound each link to the links above and below. Ideally, it should be a two-way street. The vassal owes loyalty and pays his feudal dues to his overlord. The lord protects the vassal and recognizes his traditional privileges.

But in practice, the balance of power can too easily be tipped by a powerful lord who refuses to abide by his side of the expected arrangement. What countering force can prevent a baron from mistreating his tenants? Perhaps a king might, if he chose, force his barons to behave. But then, what force can keep a king from mistreating his barons? Who has the kind of power that could check a runaway king?

Sometimes, the church tried to do that. Popes have excommunicated kings, and independent-minded bishops have tried remonstrating with kings, insisting that the church is not merely another vassal of the king, but retains its independence in matters spiritual. Henry II’s famous battle with Thomas a Beckett was probably the most notable case of such a struggle during this era, but King John’s wrestle with the Pope over the appointment of Archbishop Stephen Langton was another example.

Other than the church, the other potential force capable of checking a king’s arbitrary misuse of power was a determined resistance by a coalition of powerful barons. Uprisings of barons happened more than once during this century, as three Plantagenet kings (Henry II, his son Richard I, and Richard’s brother John)  exercised a heavy hand, consolidating financial and political control in the monarch. Fees and feudal dues demanded of the barons were ratcheted up. An obstinate baron could be destroyed simply by being driven into debt and then stripped of his holdings.

Magna Carta Barons RevoltBy Easter 1215, in the 16th year of John’s reign, disaffection among the barons had peaked, as the king failed to show up for a promised Easter meeting with the barons. Led by such men as Robert FitzWalter and Eustace de Vesci, the barons “concocted a list of demands that they were determined John should concede to if he were to avoid being violently deposed.” John was not inclined to concede, and battle was joined. The barons took London, cutting off John from his treasury, and again pressed their demands.

Archbishop Langton, though his personal sympathies may have been with the rebels, acted as a neutral mediator, while the king’s loyal baron William Marshall, respected by both sides, did what he could to facilitate the negotiations. John had no choice but to go through the motions of conciliation, though by all accounts he was resistant and extremely angry.

As for the barons, their motives were as mixed as their different individual personalities:

They were not only angling to rebel against a king who had treated them roughly and who had failed in war; they were also preparing to challenge a raft of political issues that reached to the very core of the Plantagenet system of government.. … They wished to make a number of specific amendments to policy, setting strict limits to the king’s ability to tax and fine his subjects. But they also sought to set out grand and sweeping philosophical statements concerning the king’s basic duties to church and people. It is unlikely that all of the aims were shared by all of John’s opponents. No doubt some simply wanted to be revenged on a man who had extorted, bullied, blasphemed, and murdered his way through life and kingship for far too long. But others — and there were many — saw in the immediate crisis of 1215 a chance to change their world in a more fundamental way. It was the alliance of these interests that would make the baronial reform movement of 1215 so irresistible and enduring.

Magna Carta RunnymedeIn June 1215, at a meeting between the two sides on neutral ground in a meadow called Runnymede, the king granted his barons a list of 63 promises which have come to be called the Magna Carta. Oaths were sworn, documents were copied and sealed. But the agreement proved to be anything but enduring. Within a few months, the barons accused the king of breaking his oaths, and invoked clause #61, which specified that in such a case, the barons would be absolved of allegiance to the king and free to take up arms against him — which is exactly what happened.

When John died the following year, leaving his 9-year-old son to succeed him, the kingdom was in a tumult and the young king’s position was insecure, as a number of barons were ready to overthrow him in favor of Louis of France.

And here is where the Magna Carta, that dead and broken agreement, was resurrected for the first of many times. As a signal that the new king was willing to recognize and abide by his traditional feudal obligations to his subjects, the Magna Carta was reissued under the seal of the new monarch. There were tweaks and alterations — notably the omission of clause #61 — but the general gist of the document was the same. As an olive branch, it worked. The rebels returned to the fold, Louis returned to France, and Henry III was accepted as king.

After that, it became a custom for a new king to reconfirm and reissue the Magna Carta and other charters upon coming to the throne. The provisions of such charters changed with the years, and kings didn’t always scrupulously observe what they had promised. But the expectation was clearly  that the king should demonstrate some recognition of his subjects’ traditional rights and of certain limits to a king’s power.

The common man, whether free or serf, was barely remembered here. These early charters dealt with a king’s obligations to his own. How much of a fee might be charged for the inheritance of an estate, how much a baron owed in knight’s fees, how far a king might interfere in the remarriage of a nobleman’s widow, all of these issues had no direct bearing on one who lived far down the feudal chain.

But the principle, once established, was hard to flout. Magna Carta meant that there were limits to the ruler’s power, that a king had obligations, that the law bound him as well as it bound his subjects, that the duties which subjects owed to their monarch depended upon reciprocal duties which a monarch owed to his subjects. As the centuries passed, these principles revealed wider and deeper applications than had ever been imagined by a handful of resentful medieval barons and their overbearing king.

[Note: The pictures in this post were created using this delightful Historic Tale Construction Kit at “Bildwirkery von Bayeux”.]