“I’ll tell you a story,
a story anon,
Of a noble Prince, and
his name was King John,
For he was a Prince, a
Prince of great might,
He held up great
wrongs, he put down great right.”
The Reign of John, 1199-1216.
The reign of King John was the time when people did not know what
tomorrow would bring to them. Their King was cruel and unpredictable. It
was the time when churches halted their services for a while, when taxes
were raised day after day, when nearly everyone could be destroyed
without having any guilt.
In his early age John was given the nickname of Lackland, because
being the youngest in the family, he indeed had no his own lands, unlike
his elder brothers. The other historians say that this nickname was
given to him because during his reign he practically lost everything
that he possessed. When he was 19 he was send to govern Ireland. But in
a few months he returned, covered with disgrace, because he offended the
loyal chiefs by his childish insolence, and entirely failed to defend
the people from the hostile tribes.
John became the English king in 1199, at the age of 33. His little
nephew Arthur had also the claim to the throne. John with the help of
his men seized him in his bed and send to the castle in Normandy. Then
he told his people: “Put out his eyes and keep him in prison”, others
said: “Have him stabbed”, others: “Have him hanged”, others: “Have him
poisoned”. Finally the boy was stubbed and his body was sunk.
John was a victim of his own character and of circumstances. Although
he was courageous and clever he had knack of alienating nearly everyone
by his cruelty, greed and failure to honor his word. And circumstances
were: Richard’s empty treasury, the restive barons and a war in France.
Besides he had the bad lack of being an enemy of two the most powerful
figures of The Middle Ages: Philip Augustus of France and Pope Innocent
John and the King of France.
John was preparing for his second marriage. He was planning to wed a
Portuguese princes, but he fell in love with a fourteen-year-old French
girl who was betrothed to one of his vassals. Despite of that he married
her and his vassal appealed to King Philip II for justice. In order to
resolve the situation the King of France as John’s suzerain (according
to feudal custom, since John held Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine as
fiefs, he was a vassal of the French King), summoned him to stand trial.
When John refused to appear, Philip pronounced the forfeiture of all his
French domains. The King’s prestige was completely lost.
John and the Pope.
After the death of Hubert Walter in 1205, John and the monks of
Canterbury chose candidates as archbishop of Canterbury. But the Pope
Innocent III rejected both candidates and picked a third (Stephen
Langton). John refused to accept him and confiscated revenues of the
seat of Canterbury; thereupon Innocent placed England under an interdict
(1208) halting all church services. No bells were to be rung, no one
was married or even buried by the clergy. This made everyone suffer,
especially the poor, for they were used to get help from the monasteries
and clergy. John in his turn seized Church property and became
prosecuting the clergy. But all his actions encouraged his enemies. And
in order not to lose his throne, as France was prepared to invade
England with the Pope’s blessing, John submitted to Innocent in 1213.
John and the barons, reasons for the
During John’s reign the nobles had to suffer from all kinds of laws.
King John abused his coronation and feudal oath. All English kings
respected feudal law and tried to govern justly. But it was not for
John. He demanded more military service from the feudal class than did
the kings before him. He himself was always found, either to be eating
and drinking, or to be running away, when the fighting took place. He
sold royal positions to the highest bidders. He increased taxes without
obtaining the consent of the barons, which was contrary to feudal
custom. John’s courts decided cases according to his wishes, not
according to the law. People who lost case had to pay crushing
penalties. About half of the barons were prepared, in their own
self-interest, to challenge John, as he had misused royal powers and
upset the feudal balance.
In 1213 a group of barons and church leaders met at St.Albans, near
London. They called to a halt to the King’s injustices and drew up a
list of rights they wanted John to grant them. Twice King John refused
to grant these rights. After the second time, the barons raised an army
to force the King to meet their demands. John saw that he could not
defeat the army and so he agreed to the articles on June 15, 1215. There
is a little island on the Thames, near Windsor, called Magna Carta
Island, and on it John met the barons to put the seal on a lamp of wax
to show that he signed and consented to keep the promises set out in the
Charter. He was in a furious state of anger all the time. It is said
that as soon as the deed was done ‘he through himself on the ground;
gnashing his teeth, and gnawing sticks and straws in his rage’. Four
days later, the articles were engrossed (written out in legal form) as a
royal charter. Copies of the charter were distributed throughout the
Magna Carta contained 63 articles most of which reminded the King
that there were certain limitations to his power. Some of them granted
the church freedom from royal interference. A few articles guaranteed
the rights of the rising middle class of the towns. Also were mentioned
the ancient liberties of London, the rights of merchants, and weights
and measures. Ordinary freemen and peasants were hardly mentioned in the
charter, even though they made up by far the biggest part of England’s
Some articles applied only to the feudal class later became important
to all the people. For example, the Charter stated that the King must
seek the advice and consent of the barons in all matters important to
the kingdom. The King was not to make the people to pay taxes without
the consent of the Great Council. Later such articles were used to
support the argument that no law should be made or tax raised without
the consent of England’s parliament. Hundreds of years later Magna Carta
was used by parliament to protect itself from a powerful King.
Still other articles became foundations for modern justice. One
article says that no freeman was to be punished, no one was to be
imprisoned, deprived of property, send out of the country or destroyed
without a proper trial according to the law of the land. The idea of due
process of law, including trial by jury, developed from this article.
Protection from arbitrary arrest was strengthened by clause 39, making
it unlawful to arrest a freeman “except by the lawful judgment of his
peers or by the law of the land”.
One of specific points of Great Charter was the setting up of a
permanent committee of 25 barons to see that Jon’s promises were kept.
If John ignored the warnings of the Council, it had the right to raise
an army and force him to live by the Charter’s provisions.
This Charter was much broader confirmation of the rights and privileges
than the Charter of Henry I. Nevertheless, its detailed provisions were
essentially feudal and soon became dated. Over the centuries, however,
the Charter became increasingly meaningful and a part of common law as
attested by its confirmation forty times in later reigns.
The Charter after 1215.
Magna Carta did not end the struggle between John and the barons.
Neither side intended to abide by the Carter completely. War broke out
immediately, and John died in the midst of it in 1216. But in the years
that followed, other English kings agreed to the terms of the Charter.
It came to be recognized as part of the fundamental law in England.
Magna Carta was largely forgotten during the 1500’s. But members of
parliament brought it to the life again during the 1600’s. They used it
to rally support in their struggle against the despotic rule of the
Stuart kings. Members of parliament came to view the Charter as a
constitutional check on royal power.
In the 1700’s, Sir William Blackstone, a famous lawyer, set down
ideals of the Charter as legal rights of the people in his famous
Commentaries on the Laws of England.
Four originals of the 1215 Charter remain in England. Two are in the
British Library in London, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and one in
Lincoln Cathedral. The one in Lincoln Cathedral is considered to be in
the best condition. For many years, the document was commonly known as
Magna Charta. But in 1946, the British government officially adopted the
Latin spelling, Magna Carta.
The decline of feudalism.
Magna Carta marks a clear stage in the collapse of English feudalism.
Feudal society was based on links between lord and vassal. At Runnymede
the nobles were not acting as vassals but as a class (remember the
council of 25 members). In addition, the nobles were acting in
co-operation with the merchant class of towns. There were other small
signs that the feudalism was changing. When the King went to war he had
the right for forty days’ fighting service from each of his lords. But
forty days were not long enough for fighting a war in France. The nobles
refused to fight for longer, so the King was forced to pay soldiers to
fight for him. At the same time many lords preferred their vassals to
pay them in money rather than in services. Besides, the use of land in
return for service was beginning to weaken. Vassals were gradually
beginning to change into tenants.
Cities grew wealthier and became more important than stone castles.
Nevertheless, feudalism was still strong and it took another three
hundred years before it disappeared completely.
An illustrated history of Britain/ David McDowal, 1989.
Panorama of Great Britain/ L.S.Baranovskij, D.D.Kozikis, 1990.
British History/ Harold J.Schultz, 1992.
The World Book Encyclopedia (volume 7, 13), 1994.
История Англии/ составитель Г.С.Усова, 1998.
In conclusion I’d like to summon up all there results of the signing
of Magna Carta:
In Magna Carta many rights were granted to the English aristocracy;
Magna Carta placed the King under the law and decisively checked royal
The Charter stated that the King must seek advice and consent of the
barons in all matters important to the kingdom. In later centuries such
articles were used to support the argument that no law should be made or
tax raised without the consent of England’s parliament;
A few articles became foundations for modern justice. The idea of due
process of law, including trial by jury, developed from these articles;
Magna Carta did the first step in the decline of feudalism;
Magna Carta is a document that played an important role in the
development of constitutional government in England. In later centuries
much of the rest of the world also benefited from it, because
! µ ¶ O O O n o o %
John and the barons, reasons for the Charter.
The Charter after 1215.
The decline of feudalism.