Consequences of Magna Carta

Consequences of Magna Carta

The agreement at Runnymede in 1215 had broad consequences for medieval England. Professor Nicholas Vincent explores the immediate impact of Magna Carta, considering the Civil War, the re-issue of the charter and the formation of early forms of parliament.

Professor David Carpenter and Professor Nicholas Vincent explore the survival of Magna Carta after King John’s death, considering its numerous reissues during the reign of King Henry III, and its influence on the creation of Parliament.

The charter agreed at Runnymede was intended merely as the beginning of a process of reform, not an end in itself. Magna Carta’s first purpose was to establish peace between King and barons. Given the state of England’s roads, summer was the only time of year for military operations. Magna Carta, agreed in mid-June 1215, effectively prevented the outbreak of full-scale warfare. Within a week of its making, the King had written to each county of England requiring his sheriffs to proclaim a firm peace and to make arrangements for the charter to be enforced. Clause 48 of the charter insisted that 12 knights be elected within every county, within the next 40 days, to investigate abuses by sheriffs, foresters and other royal officials and to ensure that such evil practices were never again permitted. The final ‘security’ clause of the charter (clause 61) established a committee of 25 barons to enforce the settlement, to whom oaths were to be sworn by the entire community. These oaths were to be administered in the county courts.

Memorandum of the distribution of copies of Magna Carta

Memorandum of the distribution of copies of Magna Carta

It is uncertain how many copies of Magna Carta were dispatched in 1215. This memorandum states that on 24 June two copies were given to the Bishop of Lincoln, another to the Bishop of Worcester and four more to Master Elias of Dereham. It is likely that there were 13 manuscripts in total.

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Writ for publishing Magna Carta

Writ for publishing Magna Carta

This letter informs the sheriff of Gloucestershire that peace has been restored through the granting of Magna Carta and that this sheriff should ensure that obedience is pledged to the 25 barons. This letter, dated from Runnymede on 20 June, informs the sheriff of Gloucestershire that peace has been restored. The sheriff is to ensure that the men of his county pledge obedience to the 25 barons appointed to keep the peace.

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Verse account of Magna Carta in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey

Verse account of Magna Carta in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey

One of the earliest accounts of the settlement reached at Runnymede. Written in verse, the description starts, ‘A new state of things began in England; such a strange affair as had never before been heard; for the body wished to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king.’

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From peace settlement to civil war

From the very beginning, two problems endangered this process of enforcement. The first was relatively easily resolved. The sheriffs could not be trusted to administer arrangements in which their own misdeeds were the object of attack. Nor could they be trusted to act as custodians of the charter itself. As a result, the bishops seem to have stepped in both to ensure that the charter was properly publicised, and to ensure its preservation in their own cathedral archives. Thirteen original exemplars of Magna Carta were written and released from the King’s writing office during the summer of 1215, corresponding precisely to the number of English bishops in office. Three of the four Runnymede charters that survive today were preserved in cathedral archives, and the fourth very probably also.

Much more seriously, the King had no intention of permitting the charter’s long-term survival. Having re-established peace, and in return for a limited investigation of past misdeeds, John intended to rule as he had ruled in the past. A copy of the charter was dispatched to Rome, clearly in the hope that the Pope would annul it. No sovereign authority, either king or pope, could be expected to endorse a charter that placed a ruler under his subjects’ supervision or the head of state under a committee of barons. On 24 August 1215, Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) duly declared the charter null and void.

The papal bull annulling Magna Carta

The Papal Bull Annulling Magna Carta

This document, issued by Pope Innocent III on 24 August 1215, quashed the 1215 Magna Carta.

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In England, ignoring the terms of the charter, the King refused to dismiss his foreign constables and mercenaries. The barons refused to surrender London. Rochester Castle, in theory held by Archbishop Stephen Langton (1150-1228), was surrendered to the rebels. By the end of the second week in September, the King’s clerical supporters had suspended Archbishop Langton from office and excommunicated the leaders of the rebellion. England was once again at war. The peace settlement agreed at Runnymede was a dead letter after barely 10 weeks . There followed two years of civil war and French invasion. Large parts of southern England were placed under the rule of Louis, the future King of France (1187-1226).

Letter naming the rebels and declaring that their lands be confiscated

Letter naming the rebels and declaring that their lands be confiscated

Archbishop Stephen Langton was ordered by the Pope to excommunicate the rebel barons. This letter, sent to Langton by the Papal Commissioners, named the rebels and declared that their lands should be confiscated.

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Revival of Magna Carta

Two factors ensured the survival of the spirit and at least part of the letter of Magna Carta. In October 1216, King John (r.1199-1216) fell ill with dysentery and died at Newark. He left a nine-year-old son to succeed him as King Henry III (r.1216-1272). The boy king’s advisors were determined to break with the past. To advertise this determination, at Bristol, in November 1216, they reissued Magna Carta. Now stripped of its more obnoxious clauses, and above all without the insistence on a baronial committee of 25, the charter was used to recover the allegiance of those increasingly convinced that King Louis would be little better than King John. When the tide of political fortune swung decisively in the boy king’s favour, following defeats for Louis and his supporters in battle at Lincoln, Henry III once again reissued the charter, in November 1217. On this occasion, it was accompanied by a second charter covering those parts of England set aside as ‘forest’ (in theory reserved for the King’s hunting, beyond the usual rule of law). It was the contrast between the great charter of liberties and the smaller charter governing the forests that gave rise, from 1217 onwards, to the name ‘Magna Carta’ (the 'Big' or 'Great' Charter) applied to the larger of these two documents.

The will of King John

The will of King John

King John’s will, drawn up days before his death, is the earliest original English royal will in existence.

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King John's thumb-bone, hose, shoe and shroud

King John's thumb-bone, hose, shoe and shroud

This thumb-bone, reputed to be that of King John, was presented to Worcester Cathedral in 1957, and is thought to have been removed from his tomb in 1797.

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Teeth of King John

Teeth of King John

These teeth were taken from King John’s tomb in 1797.

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Magna Carta, 1216

Magna Carta, 1216

This version of Magna Carta aimed to bring support to the newly crowned King Henry III. Shown here is the only surviving 1216 version of the charter.

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Magna Carta with the seal of Cardinal Guala, 1217

Magna Carta with the seal of Cardinal Guala, 1217

In 1217, Henry III was only ten years old, and did not have his own seal. Consequently, Magna Carta, although issued in the king’s name, was sealed by the papal legate, Guala Bicchieri, and the regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke.

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In 1225, at his coming of age, to buy further support and in return for taxation to defend his remaining lands in France, Henry III reissued Magna Carta. It was this charter of 1225 that henceforth became the definitive form, reissued or confirmed on numerous occasions throughout the 13th century. Like the 1216 and 1217 charters, the 1225 Magna Carta cut away nearly half of the text originally agreed at Runnymede. Out went the clauses regulating Jewish debt, taxation, the farms paid by sheriffs for their counties, the insistence that sheriffs and other officers know the laws of England, that the king expel his alien constables, that all hostages be released, and that settlements be devised with both the Welsh and the Scots. Above all, out went all mention of the baronial committee of 25 set above the king to impose justice where the king acted beyond the law.

Magna Carta, 1225

Magna Carta 1225

The 1225 version of Magna Carta, freely issued by Henry III in return for a tax granted to him by the whole kingdom, became the definitive version of the text.

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The Forest Charter of 1225

The Forest Charter of 1225

The Charter of the Forest, issued with the revised Magna Carta by Henry III in 1217, re-established rights of access to the forest for free men.

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Taxation and representation: proto parliament

Magna Carta did not put an end to royal tyranny. Henry III and his successors were capable of ruling just as badly as King John. Kings continued to make war for their own glory rather than for the public good. Taxes continued to mount. Several of the clauses of Magna Carta went unenforced. Judicial visitation of the counties, for example, remained a haphazard affair. Justice continued to favour the rich over the poor. The influential remained more powerful than those without influence at court. Even so, within society at large, the repeated and frequent reissue of the charter encouraged the growth of a belief in essential rights and liberties standing above the authority of any particular king. On occasion, when baronial or local discontent boiled over, as it did in 1258, 1264 and again in 1297, there were calls not only for the reissue of Magna Carta but for root and branch reform of royal government on behalf of the ‘community of the realm’. This ‘community’, first referred to in the security clause of the Runnymede charter, came to play an increasingly significant role in politics, as the King’s need for taxation led to the summoning of ‘parliaments’ (literally ‘speakings together’). Here the barons were expected to approve taxation in return for the hearing of petitions and the redress of their own particular grievances.

Magna Carta, 1297

Magna Carta, 1297

One of the most famous confirmations of Magna Carta was that of King Edward I in 1297, since it was this confirmation that was copied on to the Statute Roll.

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Magna Carta did not itself create ‘Parliament’. Nonetheless, by requiring that taxation be imposed only after consultation with the ‘common counsel of the realm’, Magna Carta in many ways pointed the way to the emergence of parliamentary government. Above all, by insisting that there were rights and customs that stood above the authority of any particular king, Magna Carta, in its many reissues and confirmations, embedded the sense that England was a land of liberties. Even the most powerful of tyrants, the charter suggested, would now have to answer to the rule of law.

Statute book containing Magna Carta issued by King John and Henry III

Statute book containing Magna Carta issued by King John and Henry III

This manuscript of statutes, which would have been used by lawyers and administrators, contains the text of the 1215 Magna Carta, the 1225 Magna Carta issued by Henry III and the Charter of the Forest.

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  • Nicholas Vincent
  • Nicholas Vincent is Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of a dozen books, including Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2012); Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom (Third Millennium 2015), and A Brief History of Britain: The Birth of the Nation, 1066-1485 (Constable 2010). He is considered a leading expert on Magna Carta and acted as one of the principal academic advisors to the present exhibition. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

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