King John and the origins of Magna Carta

Professor David Carpenter and Professor Nicholas Vincent discuss the reign of King John, the grievances of the barons and the circumstances in which Magna Carta was created in 1215.

John was a thoroughly nasty piece of work. He was a murderer, a womaniser, he was always trying to put people in their place, to get them down – do them down. You never knew where you stood with him if he put his arm around your shoulder, he was going to stab you in the back, but he was more complex than that and that’s what made him so dangerous. He was highly energetic, he was a master of detail and that’s what made his manipulation of people so devastating.

The barons rebelled against King John for a variety of reasons, some of those reasons were long term. They went all the way back to the 1150s, they went all the way back to the reign of King John’s father who had slowly whittled away the privileges of the barons. He’d taken away their castles, he had taken away their lands and above all he’d established a new sort of law court presided over by the king to which business that previously had gone to the courts of the barons now went.

In 1215 Magna Carta asserted the fundamental principle that the king was subject to the law. He couldn’t just simply say ‘off with your head’, into prison – he had to go through some sort of proper legal process. But it also asserted that principle in certain key areas.  One was money, it was trying to prevent the king taking your money in lawless ways and it was also asserting that principle in the area of justice. The king’s justice was to be fair and available to all free men.

The most important thing about Magna Carta is that it places the sovereign under the rule of law, that’s the first and fundamental principle here. And although it failed as a peace, and although it actually survived as law for less than 12 weeks – it was annulled by the Pope by the beginning of September 1215 – it was reissued thereafter in an attempt to buy baronial support continually throughout the 13th century and it acquired a totemic status. It said that kings of England could not misbehave without there being consequences.

Magna Carta is in Latin, the official language of record, and that’s only understandable by an elite.  The nobility speak French and very, very quickly, to make the charter accessible to them, it was translated into French. Now, was it ever translated into English which of course is the language of the ordinary population? There’s no evidence that it ever was until much later in its history. And so did ordinary people know about the charter at all because they can’t read it? I think probably though, it was read and translated into English at meetings of the county court, so people could hear it in English even if they couldn’t read it.

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