Dan Jones, Magna Carta:
The Birth of Liberty
The Magna Carta, a document dating from 1215 — a mere 802 years ago – is now regarded as the foundation for some of the most enduring Anglo-American liberties, among them trial by jury; the right of habeas corpus; the principle of no taxation without representation; and the notion that the king is subject to and not above the law. Grandiose terms such as “due process of law” and the “rule of law” are regularly traced to the Great Charter. Yet, when we look at the charter from the perspective of 1215, we see a markedly different instrument: an ineffective peace treaty designed to end civil war between a loathsome English king and rebellious barons that brought about almost no cessation of hostilities; and a compact that, within a few short weeks of its execution, was condemned by the Pope in the strongest terms, when he threatened both sides with excommunication from the Catholic Church if they sought to observe or enforce its terms.
Dan Jones’ Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty seeks to capture the perspective and spirit of 1215. In this compact, easy-to-read volume, Jones, a British historian and journalist who has published extensively on the Middle Ages, takes his readers back to the late 12th and 13th centuries to show the origins and immediate after effects of the Great Charter. To this story, fascinating in itself, Jones adds much rich detail about life in England and on the European continent during the Middle Ages — for kings and barons, to be sure, but also for everyday folks, those without titles of nobility. In Jones’ interpretation, the Magna Carta was the product of a struggle for control of the 13th century English feudal order between three institutions: the crown, the nobility, and the Catholic Church.
The key characters in Jones’ story are King John I — “bad King John,” as I remember him described in school; approximately 200 barons, England’s’ most powerful nobles who, upon condition of pledging loyalty to the king, ruled over wide stretches of the realm like miniature kings; and Pope Innocent III, in Jones’ view one of the greatest medieval popes, a “reformer, a crusader, and a strict clerical authoritarian” (p.41) with an unbending belief in papal supremacy that was bound to clash with the expansive notions of royal prerogative which John entertained. Yet, the two headstrong personalities enjoyed a brief period of collaboration that led directly to the Great Charter.
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Jones rejects recent attempts of historians to rehabilitate John’s reputation. “Bad King John” seems to summarize well who John was: a “cruel and unpleasant man, a second-rate soldier . . . slippery, faithless, interfering, [and] uninspiring . . . not a man who was considered fit for kingship” (p.28-29). Born in 1166, John was the youngest of five sons of the first of England’s Plantagenet kings, King Henry II, and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. Of the five sons, only John and his brother Richard survived to adulthood. Richard, known as “Richard the Lionhearted” for his “peerless brilliance as a military leader” (p.24), succeeded his father as king in 1189.
Neither Henry nor Richard spent much time in England. Both were busy fighting adversaries in France and acquiring lands in Brittany, Normandy, and Western France. Richard was also involved both in the Third Crusade to the Holy Land and in wars elsewhere on the European continent. On his deathbed, Henry learned that his son John had joined some of his leading French adversaries in plotting against his father. John repeated his treachery during his brother Richard’s reign: he provoked conflict with Richard’s royal administrators while his brother was away, attempting to seize control of government for himself. Without children, Richard died in battle in France in 1199 and John inherited the English throne.
John began his reign fighting wars on several fronts in France. Within five years of his accession, he had lost “virtually the whole Continental empire that had been so painstakingly assembled and defended by his father and his brother” (p.33) — not without reason was he known as “John Lackland.” But John “never gave up believing that he was obliged – perhaps even destined – to one day return to the lands he had lost and reclaim them” (p.38). As he devoted the better part of ten years to reclaiming lost French lands, John needed to raise huge revenues. Wars in those days, as in ours, were expensive undertakings.
John was relentless in exploiting familiar sources of revenue and spotting new ones. He sold immunity from lawsuits and charged aristocratic widows vast sums to forego his right to subject such women to forced marriage. He expanded the lands deemed royal forests, and imposed substantial fines on those who sought to hunt or collect firewood on them. He levied punitive taxes on England’s Jews. None of these measures were wholesale innovations, Jones indicates. What made John different was the “sheer scale and relentlessness with which he bled his realm. Over the course of his reign his average annual income was . . . far higher than [what] either his father or his brother had ever achieved” (p.38).
But John was most ruthless in imposing taxes and fees upon England’s 200 or so barons, who officially held their land at the pleasure of the king. Pledging loyalty to the king and paying taxes and fees to him permitted a baron to live, literally, like a king in a castle, surrounded by servants who worked in the castle, knights who pledged loyalty to the baron, and serfs who tilled nearby land. Beyond basic rent, the barons were subject to a wide range of additional payments to the king: inheritance taxes, fees for the king’s permission to marry, and payments to avoid sending a baron’s knights to fight in the royal army, known as “scutage,” one of the most contentious sources of friction between John and the barons. John “deliberately pushed numerous barons to the brink of bankruptcy, a state in which they became highly dependent on royal favor” (p.50).
As tensions between king and barons mounted over John’s “pitilessly efficient legal and a financial administration” (p.53), John also challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, the “ultimate guarantor” in 13th century England of the “spiritual health of the realm” (p.45). In 1206, John found himself in direct confrontation with the church’s head in Rome, Pope Innocent III. John objected vehemently to Innocent’s appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, an instance of an on-going struggle over ecclesiastical appointments, in which kings claimed the right to appoint bishops in their kingdoms and popes resisted acknowledging any such right. Langton’s potentially seditious ideas alarmed John. The pope’s nominee condemned the “avarice . . . of modern kings” and criticized those who “collect treasure not in order that they may sustain necessity, but to satiate their cupidity” (p.40-41).
To impede Langton’s appointment, John seized lands belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent retaliated by placing an interdict upon England, forbidding most church services, a severe sentence on all of John’s subjects, placing in peril England’s “collective soul” (p.45). Later, the Pope excommunicated John — the ultimate 13th century sanction that a pope could impose upon an earthly being, foreclosing heaven’s everlasting grace and exposing the hapless soul to eternal damnation. The stalemate ended in 1213 when John, facing the threat of an invasion from France, agreed to accept Langton as Archbishop, pledged obedience to the Pope and the Catholic Church, and vowed to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. Through this “astonishing volte-face,” John could henceforth claim “special protection from all his enemies as a personal vassal of the pope” (p.57). For his part, Innocent had shown “remarkable moral flexibility,” blending seamlessly the “Christian principle of forgiving one’s enemies with a willingness to consort with almost anyone who he thought could help him achieve his heartfelt desire to smite the Muslims of the Middle East” (p.89).
Having made his peace with Rome, John pursued his quest to retake previously lost lands in France. He suffered a humiliating loss in 1214 at the town of Bouvines in Northern France to forces aligned with French King Phillip Augustus. After this catastrophic debacle, and with his “foreign policy and military reputation now severely tarnished,” John returned to England to find the “chorus of baronial anger at his high-handed brand of kingship louder than ever” (p.63). A group of barons, but perhaps not a majority, formally renounced their fealty to John, thereby “declaring themselves free to make war upon him” (p.105). Having “unilaterally defied their lord and freed themselves from the feudal oath on which their relationship and the whole of the structure of society depended,” the barons were henceforth “outlaws, rebels, and enemies of the realm” (p.105). John’s kingdom was “teetering dangerously on the brink of civil war. It was a war he could neither avoid nor afford to pursue” (p.63).
In a mutinous spirit, the barons demanded that John confirm the Charter of Liberties, a proclamation issued by King Henry I more than a century earlier, in 1100, that had sought to bind the King to certain laws regarding the treatment of nobles, church officials, and individuals. John’s response was to hold a council in London in January 1215 to discuss potential reforms with the barons. Both sides appealed for assistance to Pope Innocent III. John’s reconciliation with the pope two years earlier turned out to be a “political masterstroke” (p.58). The Pope squarely took John’s side in the dispute, providing him with a key bargaining edge.
From late May into the early days of June 1215, messengers traveled back and forth between the king and the rebel barons. Slowly but surely they began to feel out the basis for an agreement, with Archbishop Langton playing a key role as mediator. By June 10, 1215, the outlines of an agreement had taken detailed form, and John was ready to meet his rebellious barons in person. The meeting took place at Runnymede, a meadow in Surrey on the River Thames, about 20 miles west of London, a traditional meeting point where opposing sides met to work out differences on neutral ground. General agreement was reached on June 15, 2015. Four days later, the barons formally renewed their oaths of loyalty to John and official copies of the charter were issued.
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The bargain at Runnymede was essentially an exchange of peace to benefit the king, for which the barons gained confirmation of many long-desired liberties. The Runnymede charter was “much longer, more detailed, more comprehensive, and more sophisticated than any other statement of English law or custom that had ever been demanded from a King of England” (p.141). The written document was not initially termed “Magna Carta”; that would come two years later. It consisted of 4.000 words, in continuous Latin text, without divisions. Subsequently the text was sub-divided into 63 clauses. “Read in sequence,” Jones writes, the 63 clauses “feel like a great jumble of issues and statements that at times barely follow one from the other. Taken together, however, they form a critique of almost every aspect of Plantagenet kingship in general and the rule of John in particular” (p.133).
Buried deep in the document were Clauses 39 and 40. Clause 39 declared: “No free man is to be arrested or imprisoned or disseized, or outlawed or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” (p.138). Clause 40 stipulates: “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice” (p.138-39). More than any other portions of the charter, these two clauses constitute the reason why the Magna Carta remained consequential over the course of the following eight centuries. The two clauses enshrine, Jones states, the “basic idea that justice should always restrain the power of government” (p.139). They contain in embryo form the modern notions of due process of law and judgment by equals.
But these clauses were far from priorities for either side. The charter’s first substantive clause affirmed that “the English Church shall be free” (p.134), a clause inserted at Archbishop Langton’s urging to limit the king from interfering in church appointments. Although the Magna Carta is “often thought to be a document concerned with the secular rights of subjects or citizens,” in 1215 its religious considerations were “given pride of place” (p.135). Subsequent clauses restrained the king’s right to impose taxes upon the barons.
The charter explicitly limited the authority of the Exchequer – the king’s treasury, the “most important institution of royal government” (p.14-15) – to impose inheritance taxes, so that it could no longer “extort, bully and ruin anyone whom the king happened merely to dislike” (p.136). Scutage, the tax exacted as an alternative to service in the king’s armies, was to be imposed only after taking the “common counsel of the realm” (p.136), foreshadowing the notion developed later in the 13th and 14th centuries that taxes could be imposed only after formal meetings between the king and his subjects.
Clause 61, known as the “security clause,” was arguably of greatest importance to the barons. It established a panel of 25 specially elected barons empowered to hold John to his word. If John were to “transgress against any of the articles of peace” (p.140), the clause entitled the barons to renounce their loyalty to the king and take appropriate action, including taking the king’s castles, lands and possessions. The security clause was the first mechanism in English history to allow the “community of the realm to override the king’s authority when that authority was abused” (p.140). More bluntly, if John were to backslide on his obligations under the charter, the clause explicitly “allowed for licensed civil war” (p.140).
Other clauses in the charter regulated bridge building; banned fish traps; established uniform weights and measures for corn, cloth, and ale; and reversed the expansion of royal forests that had taken place during John’s reign. There was also, Jones writes, much in the Magna Carta that remained “vague, woolly, or fudged. In places the document feels like frustratingly unfinished business” (p.139). Yet, beneath the host of details and specificities of the charter, Jones sees two simple ideas. The first was that the English barons could conceive of themselves as a community of the realm – a group with “collective rights that pertained to them en masse rather than individually.” Even more fundamentally, although the king still made the law, he explicitly recognized in the charter that he had a duty to “obey [the law] as well” (p.141).
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The weeks that followed the breakup of the meeting at Runnymede were, as Jones puts it “messy and marked by increasing distrust” (p.143). In the immediate aftermath of the charter’s confirmation, John was flooded with demands that he return land and castles he had confiscated in previous years. Prior to the end of June 1215, John was forced to make fifty such restorations to rebel barons. Seeing little advantage to the peace treaty he had agreed to, John convoked another meeting with the barons in July at Oxford. There, he sought a supplementary charter in which the barons would acknowledge that they were “’bound by oath to defend him and his heirs ‘in life and limb’” (p.144). When the barons refused, John wrote to Pope Innocent III asking him to annul the Great Charter and release him from his oath to obey it.
Writing back with the “righteous anger that he could summon better than any man in Europe”(p.144), Innocent more than complied with John’s request. In words that left little room for interpretation, Innocent declared the charter “null, and void of all validity forever” (p.145). Under threat of excommunication, Innocent enjoined John from observing the document and the barons from insisting upon its observance. By the end of September 1215, roughly 100 days after its execution, the Magna Carta was, Jones writes, “certifiably dead” (p.145).
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But the Great Charter did not remain dead. Although civil war between John and the barons erupted anew in the autumn of 1215, the charter received new life with the deaths of the story’s two protagonists the following year: Innocent died in July 1216 and John in October of that year. After John’s death, the charter evolved from a peace treaty imposed by the king’s enemies to an “offering by the king’s friends, designed to demonstrate voluntarily the commitment of the new regime to govern by principles on which the whole realm could agree” (p.184-85). For the rest of the thirteenth century, the Magna Carta was “reconfirmed and reissued at moments of political instability or crisis” (p.184-85). Even where its specific clauses grew irrelevant and obsolete, “much importance was still attached to the idea of the Magna Carta as a bargaining chip, particularly in relation to taxation” (p.186-87). By the end of the 13th century, a peace treaty that lasted just a few weeks more than eight decades earlier had become the “founding stone of the whole system of English law and government” (p.189-190).
Into this story of political intrigue and civil conflict, Jones weaves detailed descriptions of everyday life in early 13th century England: for example, what Christmas and Easter celebrations entailed; the tenuous lives of serfs; and how life in London, already England’s largest city, differed from that in the rest of the realm. These passages enliven Jones’ study of the charter’s origins and immediate afterlife.
In a final chapter, Jones fast forwards several centuries, discussing briefly the Great Charter’s long afterlife: its influence on the rebellion against the Stuart kings in 17th century England, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; how the charter underlay the rebellion of England’s American colonies during the following century; and its continued resonance in modern times. The charter’s afterlife, Jones writes, is the story of its myth and symbolism becoming “almost wholly divorced from its original history” (p.5). Jones’ lucid and engrossing work constitutes an invaluable elaboration of the charter’s original history, reminding us of the unpromising early 13th century environment from which it emerged to become one of the most enduring documents of liberal democracy.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
May 23, 2017