Magna Carta: The Grandaddy of Political Liberty


Magna Carta and British flag main

King John (of Robin Hood fame) granted The Magna Carta (the Great Charter) in 1215 England against his will. He was fighting a civil war and was playing for time. The Magna Carta protected only a favored few and generally addressed now obscure feudal concerns. Nonetheless, it also contained a germ of modern liberty, including due process and the consent of the governed. The Great Charter ultimately became a symbol of limited government and civil liberty. These fundamental principles now protect everyone. 

Feudal Britain 

Our story begins in 12th-century England. In those times, feudalism was the economic, political, and social system practiced throughout Western Europe. 

The king was officially the owner of all of the land in the country. Great landowners (barons) leased the land in return for military and financial services. Peasants (serfs) served local landowners. Only a small group of people were “freemen” having freedom of movement.  

They all were obligated to follow the pope, God’s representative on earth. These also were times of Crusades, which were attempts to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslim control.  

King Henry II 

King Henry II (1154-1189) came into power after a long civil war (“the Anarchy”). 

His father died without a male heir. A battle arose between his daughter (Matilda) and crowned King Stephen. When Henry II came into power, the country regained strong leadership. 

Henry issued a traditional charter protecting all the customs and liberties. There was an understanding that rightful kings were not tyrants. In those days, England did not have a legislature (Parliament). The king ruled the land and collected taxes on his own.  

In return, there was an expectation that the king would follow well-accepted customary ways of doing things. Henry ruled with a firm hand. He had multiple means of obtaining taxes. Battles to obtain lands in France and fight the Crusades were expensive. 

The Days of Robin Hood 

Robin Hood is a mythical outlaw who “stole from the rich and gave to the poor.” Tales of Robin Hood began later, but eventually, he supposedly lived in the 1190s. 

Robin Hood was a nobleman whose base of operations was Sherwood Forest. Royal control of forest lands was controversial because they had more absolute power over them than most feudal lands.  Robin Hood clashed with the Sheriff of Nottingham and Henry’s son John.

John’s older brother was now king. King Richard, however, spent most of his time outside England fighting the Crusade or battles in France. These wars were expensive, especially when Richard had to pay a  ransom after being captured. King Richard died in 1199.  

King John

Richard was famous for his fighting skills and bravery. 

John had a reputation as an unpleasant coward. Richard was the “Lionheart” while John was the “Softsword” for an embarrassing peace treaty he signed with the French. 

After the successes of his father and brother, King John oversaw the loss of many of England’s French territories. John focused on his lands in Great Britain, clashing with the barons by heavy-handed tactics to obtain funds. Ironically, a battle with Pope Innocent III (not quite an accurate name) allowed him more means to obtain funds by seizing church lands.

King John hoped to regain the lands he lost in France. He had the funds and the feudal demand for military support from his barons to do so. Unfortunately for John, his attempts were a costly failure. The barons lost patience. A civil war broke out against the royal forces. 

Magna Charter 

King John and the rebellious barons met in early 1215 to try to reach an agreement.

The barons wanted a charter like the one Henry II promised to follow. There were accepted ways to handle land disputes, inheritance matters, taxes, and privileges granted to cities. Barons did not wish to worry about King John doing things like forcing widows to pay large sums to avoid being forced to remarry someone. The church also had expected privileges.

John granted their request on June 15 at a meeting at Runnymede. The document was later known as the Magna Charter (Great Charter). It is concerned with medieval concerns such as “knight fees.” The Magna Charter also applied to “freemen,” only about ten percent of the people.  Nonetheless, it also has fundamental protections, including due process of law.

King John Takes It Back

King John acted under duress. 

He had no intention of being restrained by the barons. John and the Church also settled their differences, providing a powerful ally. John reneged on his agreement. 

The rebellious barons sought help from the French. John appeared to have had the upper hand. Nonetheless, he could not prevent the French forces from landing on English soil. John died in October 1216, desperately trying to regain power.

His nine-year-old son became King Henry III. 

Magna Charter Reborn 

The royal forces needed an olive branch to obtain a peaceful settlement with the rebellious barons. They offered the Magna Charter as a sign of good faith. The civil war continued into 1217 when the royal forces defeated the French. The young king’s reign was secure.  

The Magna Charta was reauthorized multiple times over the years. The text changed as the times changed. References to events topical in 1200 became out of date years later. Nonetheless, like in the days of Henry II, it was a sign of royal good faith. 

A Symbol of Liberty 

The Magna Charter became a symbol of limited government and freedom. A fundamental principle was that representatives of the barons met to agree to new taxes. This practice developed into the British Parliament. The king was not above the law. 

When King Charles threatened the rule of law in the 17th Century, the Magna Charter was cited as a fundamental law even he must follow. The American colonists appealed to the Magna Charter when King George III was the latest royal behind unjust taxes and threats to liberty. 

The original charter was an agreement between a king and his barons. It protected only a privileged few. Over the centuries, however, its core principles apply to all.

QUESTIONS

1. How did the economic, political, and social system of feudalism in 12th-century England shape the relationship between the king, barons, and peasants?

2. In what ways did King Henry II’s traditional charter lay the groundwork for the Magna Carta, and how did it reflect the expectations of a king’s role in medieval England?

3. Analyze the impact of King Richard’s participation in the Crusades and battles in France on the economic and political stability of England during his reign.

4. Compare and contrast the leadership styles and reputations of King Richard and King John. How did their differing approaches affect England’s political landscape?

5. Discuss the circumstances and motivations that led to the drafting of the Magna Carta in 1215. What were the main concerns of the barons, and how did these reflect the issues of the time?

6. Examine the significance of the Magna Carta’s inclusion of principles like due process of law and the consent of the governed, despite its initial focus on the interests of a select few.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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