King John and the Magna Carta
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Arthur of Brittany
There was another claimant to the throne in the person of the twelve year old Arthur of Brittany, the posthumous son of Geoffrey, a brother who had come between Richard and John. Both England and Normandy, not without hesitation, acknowledged John's claim; and in England he was formally elected, Hubert Walter became chancellor, and while he lived co-operated with the justiciar Geoffrey FitzPeter. But Arthur's mother, Constance, claimed for him Anjou and Maine, as well as Brittany, encouraged by Philip of France.
Aquitaine in the meantime indubitably belonged to the old queen-mother Eleanor, whose marriage with Henry II while he was still only Count of Anjou had associated it with the Angevin dominion. John stirred up a host of enemies by divorcing his wife Isabella of Gloucester, whose name is commonly given as Hadwisa, on a plea of consanguinity, and marrying another Isabel, of Angouleme, in spite of her being betrothed to Hugo of Lusignan.
Out of these embroilments Philip of France meant to get his own advantage by giving his support wherever there was most to be gained, though always professedly acting in accordance with feudal law. The Lusignans formed a party; revolts spread among John's French vassals of various sorts intervened as suzerain and mediator; trickery was answered by trickery; and when Philip thought himself strong enough he summoned John to appear before him to answer charges brought against him in his capacity as Duke of Aquitaine. John refused to appear and Philip declared his fiefs forfeited.
Normandy Philip meant to keep for himself; for the rest of the Angevin dominion he recognised the rights of Arthur. Arthur attacked Aquitaine and besieged the queen mother. For once John exerted the military ability which he really possessed, swooped upon Arthur by a brilliantly rapid march, and captured him with all his company.
He had the game in his own hands, and lost it by murdering Arthur as every one believed, and treating cithers of his captives with a brutality which alienated numbers who would otherwise have supported him.
Philip flung himself against Normandy, and John's English barons refused to fight for him. By the midsummer of 1204 Normandy was irrevocably lost. By the end of the year Gascony, which was bound to England by trade interests, was all that was left to John of the Angevin inheritance except a part of Poitou.
While John was losing Normandy and most of his other territories, matters went tolerably smoothly in England itself under the government of Geoffrey FitzPeter and Hubert Walter, John insisted upon exactions which were excessive and of doubtful legality. But the justiciar made politic concessions, sometimes to powerful barons, sometimes to a section of the clergy, and sometimes to the towns.
The charters and trading rights granted to the last served for a long time to keep them royalist, when the baronage had already been goaded into an attitude of open opposition to the Crown, The obstinate refusal of the baronage to follow John from France made the success of his cause impossible there, though probably in any case he woulH have compassed his own ruin.
Struggle with the church
In 1205 the death of Hubert Walter opened the second phase of King John's reign, the struggle with the papacy. For John it was unfortunate that the most powerful and the most uncompromising of all the Popes Innocent III, now occupied the papal throne.
The king's nominee for the archbishopric vacated by Hubert Walter's death was John de Grey, Bishop of Lincoln, The actual right of election lay with the Chapter of Canterbury; but the bishops of the province had in practice claimed to participate and the king had in practice an effective power of control.
The Chapter did not want John de Grey, but some of them at least would have preferred to avoid a quarrel with the king and the bishops. A hot-headed section however, held a secret and irregular election, chose their sub-prior and hurried him off to Rome to obtain papal confirmation of the election. The facts leaked out while he was on his journey.
The other party in the Chapter hastened to make their peace with the king by electing John de Grey in conjunction with the bishops. De Grey went off to Rome to procure his own confirmation. Innocent took the view that both the elections were highly irregular, and he invited the king to send to Rome a commission of the Canterbury Chapter with authority to make a new election.
When the commission arrived, Innocent, having set aside the two previous elections invited them to adopt a nominee of his own, Cardinal Stephen Langton. The commission obeyed; and now every one concerned except Stephen Langton himself, including the Pope, had behaved irregularly, though there was no question of Langton's fitness for the office, and Innocent had believed that the appointment would be acceptable to the king, John wanted his own creature and flung defiance at the Pope; the Pope retorted by taking the high ground of his supreme authority as the successor of St. Peter.
John seized the Canterbury estates, and the monks withdrew or were driven into exile. The Pope threatened an interdict. John offered submission with a saving clause; Innocent would listen to no saving clause.- John proclaimed that if the interdict were issued he would forfeit the estates of every ecclesiastic who obeyed it.
Innocent pronounced the interdict, and the clergy obeyed it. Practically the king and the king's officers on the one side declared war on the clergy, while the clergy on the other side closed the churches.
The populace seem to have accepted the situation with a surprising equanimity. On the whole they inclined to the king's side, probably because, when the ecclesiastical revenues were seized, they were themselves delivered from the excessive burden of taxation.
But John was threatened with excommunication, which would give every one who wanted it the papal authority for repudiating allegiance to him. At the end of 1209 John was excommunicated, and the excommunication was followed by the threat of inviting Philip of France to effect his deposition.
John continued to be defiant; but discontent increased, the air grew thick with plots and rumours of plots; John could trust no one and suspected all; Philip was preparing for invasion; and John, at last in sudden terror lest he should find himself deserted and alone, resolved on submission. In May 1213 he admitted the papal legate Pandulph, and made the famous submission in which he surrendered the crown of England and received back the kingdom as a fief of Holy Church.
Thenceforth John was the Pope's repentant son and very obedient servant, and Innocent was John's very good lord and father. The submission does not appear at the time to have shocked public opinion to any great extent; John was by no means alone among the European princes who received their crowns as vassals of the Holy See. And John's foes were deprived of the papal sanction for attacking him.
Stephen Langton, now accepted as Archbishop of Canterbury, and Geoffrey FitzPeter, were anxious to turn the new situation to account by efforts to restore the kingdom to its normal condition, and to remedy the abuses which had increased and multiplied while the quarrel with the papacy was in progress. But John had other views.
Philip of France had protested loudly that he would not give up at the Pope's dictation the project of deposing John in favour of his own son, which he had taken in hand by the Pope's desire. But immediately after the reconciliation an English fleet had fallen upon the French ships, destroyed large numbers of them, and captured some hundreds with quantities of stores.
For anything like invasion Philip was temporarily paralysed. Nevertheless, John's first desire was to pursue a vindictive policy. Continental powers, including the Emperor Otto, were ready to join in an alliance for the overthrow of the French king.
The English baronage, however, would have nothing to say to a renewal of the French war. They mistrusted John as a soldier; they knew that he had before collected vast sums of money, ostensibly for military; purposes, which were thrown away in extravagance and mismanagement. John raged, but in the face of their stolidity be was helpless.
Resolved to vent his wrath upon some one, he started for the North, intending to exact penalties from the northern barons for their recalcitrance. Stephen Langton followed him, with threats even of renewing the excommunication if he persisted.
An assembly was called at St. Albans by Geoffrey FitzPeter, where the proposal was perhaps made that the charter of Henry I should be laid before John for ratification. Constitutional resistance to unconstitutional action was taking shape. And then the old justiciar, who, like Hubert Walter, had in some sense stood between the Crown and the barons, died.
Both those men had been loyal supporters of the Crown, but had exercised a restraining influence On John himself while endeavouring to conciliate the interests which it was most dangerous to outrage. John had rejoiced in the death of [Hubert] Walter and rejoiced now in the death of [Geoffrey ] FitzPeter.
The Pope, who had been ready to depose a disobedient king was equally ready to condemn disobedience to his repentant vassal. But Innocent himself had presented England with an archbishop who feared neither king nor pope when he saw before him the clear path of justice.
If the baronage produced no conspicuously competent leader, the Church gave them in Stephen Langton a guide as courageous as he was wise, it was Langton who produced and set before them .the actual charter of Henry I, and gave them the controlling principle that they should demand not innovations, but the observance of the laws which the people and the great rulers of the past had recognised as just and righteous. The strength of the barons in the coming contest lay in the fact that it was made one not on behalf of the privileges of a class, but on behalf of the supremacy of the law.
Still John was bent on his project of destroying Philip of France, in conjunction with the Emperor Otto and other enemies of the French fang. Unable to raise the feudal levies, John collected a large force of mercenaries and sailed for Poitou.
He made terms with his old enemies of the house of Lusignan, and reports came home of a series of successful operations. But Otto on the east did not strike, and Philip organised his defence. At last Otto did move, in conjunction with a considerable force of John's troops which were in the Low Countries under the command of William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury.
Then came complete disaster. At the battle of Bouvines Philip put Otto utterly to rout, taking the Earl of Salisbury prisoner; and his victory entirely dissolved the alliance which had been formed against him. Pope Innocent succeeded in procuring a peace which still left Gascony and Guienne to the king of England; but John returned to his kingdom, not with the palm of victory as he had hoped, but under the stigma of defeat and disgrace.
Characteristically enough John wished to relieve his feelings at the expense of the barons; but Bouvines only served to stiffen them. The leaders entered into a solemn compact to insist on the demand for the confirmation of Henry I's charter.
In January 1215 they appeared before John in arms and made their demand. John procured three months delay, and in the interval employed every device of which he was master to break up the opposition; on his behalf, too, Innocent thundered from Rome but it was in vain.
The barons collected a "great army" in the North and once more sent in their statement of grievances. John flew into a passion, declaring with many oaths that they had better have asked him. for his kingdom at once. They had awaited his reply; now they marched south to London, while John retreated towards the west.
London, received the barons with open arms; no one gathered to the king's support. He saw that he was beaten, and placed himself in the hands of the archbishop. The Great Charter, based upon that of Henry I, was drawn up, placed before him, and received the royal seal on June 17, 12I5, at Runnymede, near Windsor.
The fundamental quality of all political revolutions that have taken place in England has been a theoretical conservatism. From the Charter to the Parliament Bill of 1911 the reformers have invariably taken their stand on the doctrine that they were insisting on fundamental principles of the constitution against unconstitutional innovation.
The only exceptions are to be found in the divers forms of republic which were attempted between 1648 and 1660; since it was not possible to maintain that England had ever before been a republic. In no case has the doctrine been more completely warranted than in that of the Great Charter, "the Charter" par excellence.
With the exception of a single point, every line of it insists upon principles either explicitly formulated in previous charters or implicitly sanctioned by them—principles which had been set aside only in times of sheer lawlessness or by the deliberate innovations of the Plantagenets. Its novelty lay in the fact that it was extorted from the king at the sword's point instead of being voluntarily conceded by him.
In the charter itself the main variation from precedent lay in its explicit formulation of principles which hitherto had only been implied. But, it was precisely that change which established it as a permanent criterion.
Terms of the Magna Carta
It laid down that no man should be brought to trial unless evidence could be produced against him; that no man should he punished except after lawful trial, or in a manner disproportionate to his defence; that justice should not be sold nor delayed nor denied to any man. It claimed also that only recognised taxes and feudal tees (though these are somewhat inadequately defined) might be levied without obtaining the formal consent of the Great Council.
There was ample ground for declaring that every one of these principles had been observed by the great rulers of the past. When the Charter comes to details the remarkable fact is that the barons did not confine themselves to insistence on the privileges of their own order, but also bound themselves to observe the just rights of other sections of the community in accordance with the law.
Not that they wished to improve the position of the humbler classes or pretended to be champions of democracy, but they stood for the Supremacy of Law, and the right of every man to be in practice secure of what the law promised him in theory.
The one innovation of the Charter was the machinery which it set up for compelling the Crown to carry out its obligations. It created a committee of twenty-five, nominated from among the Greater Barons with the addition of the Mayor of London, which should have authority to enforce the Charter in arms even against the king. That innovation was the one feature of the Charter in which there was no permanence, although it was followed as a precedent at various crises during the next two hundred years.
Significance of the Great Charter
The Charter marks an epoch in English history; it set up a permanent formula of liberties to which appeal could for ever after be made. But it did not bring immediate peace and good government. There were numbers of the barons who wanted something very much more drastic than what the wisdom and moderation of Stephen Langton sought to procure.
For a short time it seemed that the king meant to fulfil his promises; but insubordination among the barons provided him with an excuse for making preparations to repudiate the Charter. He procured from the Pope a decree which annulled it; the more readily, because Innocent wanted John to take a leading part in a new Crusade, which under the existing conditions was impossible.
Langton himself was paralysed by a papal threat to suspend him from his office. By the autumn both sides were preparing for war; and before the end of the year the barons, or a majority of them, took the extreme step of inviting the French Dauphin Louis to come to their aid. The barons suffered from the want of any strong and capable leader, and the coming of a French force identified patriotism with the Royalist cause.
At first, indeed, the king gained few supporters, and none from among the baronage. Though Dover held out for him stoutly under the Justiciar Hubert de Burgh, it seemed at the outset as though Louis would carry matters all his own way.
But time was on the side of a reaction, and the barons began to perceive with wrath that Louis's French followers expected to reap their own harvest, while the Committee o( twenty-five were almost ignored by him. John occupied Lincoln, and already there were signs of the tide turning, when the king was seized with a sudden illness and died at Newark on October 19, 1216.
Summing up John's reign
John deservedly enjoys the reputation of the worst monarch who ever occupied the English throne, with no one to challenge that unenviable primacy except possibly AEthelred the Redeless. But John's very crimes and failures wrought good for the country.
The recklessness of his rule, his utter disregard of law, his violence towards the Church, his extravagance, his monstrous taxation, and his personal wickedness, drove the baronage to assume the attitude of champions of law and order, and to wring from him the Charter to which appeal could for ever after be made when the ruling powers set law and order at nought. He shattered the Angevin dominion, but by so doing he made England. English.
The fusion of English and Normans had made great progress even in the reign of Henry II; but the loss of Normandy finally deprived the Norman families in England of their interest in Normandy, and bound them to England; so that in the next reign they looked upon themselves as English, and upon Frenchmen, wherever they came from, as aliens and foreigners.
Hence the national development of England was greatly indebted to the loss of John's possession in Northern France. Henceforth no king of England could treat the kingdom, after the manner of Richard I, as secondary to his continental dominions. England was not a province of the Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine; Gascony and Guienne were French, provinces in the possession of the king of England.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.