When we think of the Magna Carta agreement, there is a feeling of legend, precedent, and liberty in our minds. In that the document was drafted and an agreement was ratified almost 800 years ago, we have elevated the Magna Carta to mythological grandeur.
As with so many historical events, the groundwork for the drafting of the Magna Carta was seeded by ambition, greed, and hubris.
After an extended quarrel with the Vatican, England’s King John had been excommunicated from the church. Finally making up with the Pope, King John agreed to make England a fief of Rome. The king went so far as to compensate the Catholic Church for its fortune and lands. The Pope then restored King John to the good graces of Rome.
With the church mess taken care of, John returned his attention to the project of regaining his family’s ancestoral territories in France. To wage his second war with the French royalties, the English king had to raise money and loyalty from the barons. Many of them refused. But the king, his loyal followers, and mercenaries attacked French soil. However, history repeated itself with King John’s failure.
After his return, the king requested yet more money from his barons. Sensing weakness of the throne, the barons refused and then made counter-demands of the king. They formally presented their request, which King John promptly refused. In return, the barons withdrew allegiance to the king and formed their own rebel army.
Open rebellion threatened to erupt. The king asked the Pope to settle the question. The Pope openly sided with the King. The barons did not recognize that support. The king ordered his sherriffs to arrest the barons. The barons instead retaliated with the occupation of London. A stalemate was the result.
In order to avert all-out civil war, King John proposed a conference at Runnymede Meadow near London. Rebel barons, neutral parties, church officials with the Archbishop, the king and his supporters met at Runnymede, June 15, 1215.
Historians have very few details about the meeting. However, a document officially named, “Articles of the Barons” was presented to King John. The king then affixed his seal on the document the same day.
A few days later, the Articles of the Barons were expanded and rewritten into the language of a royal charter. King John then affixed his seal to the final document that was named, “The Great Charter” or as we know it now, The Magna Carta. In return, the barons renewed their allegiance to the king and averted the threat of civil war.
However, the king didn’t agree to the provisions in good faith. He secretly appealed to Pope Innocent III to revoke the Magna Carta because it was signed against church wishes. A terrible civil war in England ensued. But after a gluttonous episode of eating and drinking, King John died of dysentery on October 18, 1216. Soon, nine-year-old Prince Henry was crowned as the new king of England. Henry’s regent and supporters soon reaffirmed the Magna Carta on the king’s behalf. This time the Pope also approved the document.
The Magna Carta was reaffirmed several times within the following century, each time strengthening its ideals with the force of law. It became the foundation for the constitutional monarchy of Britain. Ultimately it inspired the drafting of the United States’ constitution and the Bill of Rights. Other nations have since formed their own democratically based governments largely based on the great agreement of June 15, 1215.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that eventually the rights of the barons were expanded to include the rest of the English citizens. The Magna Carta is still valid law in the United Kingdom.