The Great Charter

On June 15, 1215, King John of England put his seal to the Magna Carta in the meadow at Runnymede, after months of negotiations with his rebellious barons. The Magna Carta was the first document forced on an English king by his subjects that basically said he couldn’t do whatever the hell he wanted. In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to John on June 19.

John was not a popular king (and his reputation hasn’t been helped by history, either.) His reign brought tax increases, unsuccessful wars, and a conflict with the pope. All of these things annoyed his barons enough to start rebelling against him starting in 1209. Rebelling against the king wasn’t a new idea by any means—what was different about this rebellion was that there was no good successor for the rebels to rally around. With no replacement for John at hand, the barons figured they had to work with what they had. In January 1215, they demanded John confirm the Charter of Liberties, a proclamation by Henry I dating back to 1100 that attempted to bind the king to certain laws regarding the treatment of church officials and nobles.

John was reluctant to confirm the Charter, and negotiations began. New documents were drawn up, articles inserted and discarded. In May, John suggested they hand the matter over to the pope, but the barons would have none of that, and marched into London on June 10. The city threw open its gates to them, and John knew he was beaten.

Almost before the ink was dry, however, John and the pope denounced the document, and the First Barons’ War began. The barons offered the crown to Prince Louis of France, who had a very tenuous claim, but then John did them all the favor of dying in 1216, leaving his nine-year-old son, Henry, king. William Marshal, the regent, and Papal legate Guala Bicchieri issued a new Charter of Liberties, based on the Runnymede Charter, in November 1216, in an attempt to end the Barons’ War. After the war ended, the new charter was amended and expanded, and referred to as the Magna Carta for the first time. When King Henry came of age, he reissued the Magna Carta in a shorter version, with only 37 articles (it had had 47). The Charter was re-issued again in 1225 and 1297 by Edward I. The 1297 version is the one still in effect today, although most of its articles have been repealed. The three that remain confirm the freedom of the English Church, the “ancient liberties” of the City of London, and the right to due process.


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