Magna Carta: people and society

  • Published: 28 Jul 2014
Who were the key personalities in the history of Magna Carta? Find out more about King John, the barons, Pope Innocent III, Archbishop Stephen Langton and the other individuals and groups who played important roles.

The names of King John (r. 1199–1216) and the barons are entwined with the story of Magna Carta, but many people were involved in the events leading up to it. Others had roles to play in its legacy, or were directly affected by it. The key personalities are King John, the barons, Pope Innocent III (1161–1216) and Archbishop Stephen Langton (1150–1228). This article also explores the other individuals and groups who played a part in the story of Magna Carta.

King John

John is best remembered for granting Magna Carta in June 1215, although he sought its annulment almost immediately. The youngest son of Henry II (r. 1154–89), John succeeded his brother, Richard I (r. 1189–99), as King of England in 1199. His reign was marked by a string of unsuccessful military campaigns, a prolonged struggle with the Church and the baronial rebellion which led to Magna Carta.

John exploited his feudal rights to extort money from the barons: he set taxes at very high levels, he enforced arbitrary fines and he seized the barons’ estates. John used this income to fund his expensive wars in France, but still he failed to hold together the empire created by his father.

John was an efficient and able administrator, but he was also unpredictable and aggressive. He disregarded justice when dealing with opponents, regularly taking hostages and imposing ruthless punishments.

His conflict with the Church led to his excommunication. The annulment of Magna Carta by Pope Innocent III in August 1215, at John’s request, led to a renewal of the baronial revolt which was still raging when John died in October 1216.

The ancestry of King John

Section of a manuscript roll. Circular miniature portraits are linked by coloured lines to depict genealogical links

A genealogical roll of the English kings depicting the family history of the Angevin dynasty, including King John and Henry III (c. 1300 - 07).

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The barons

In June 1215, King John was forced to submit to the demands of his rebel barons by agreeing to the settlement recorded in Magna Carta. This limitation of royal authority through a written grant was the barons’ most radical achievement. It established the principle that the king was subject to and not above the law.

In return for their extensive landholdings, the barons owed military service to the king, their overlord, although they often paid a levy called ‘scutage’ in place of undertaking direct military action. The barons also owed the king payments relating to their estates. In the time of King John, these were set at extortionate levels, so many barons decided to join the rebellion in 1215.

In May 1215, a group of discontented barons renounced their fealty to King John, and rebelled. Led by Robert fitz Walter (1162–1235), who called himself ‘Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church’, the rebel barons captured London on 17 May 1215, and the following month finally forced King John to grant Magna Carta. The barons then made peace with the King and renewed their allegiance to him. Magna Carta also contained a clause which provided that 25 barons should oversee the enforcement of its provisions. However, just over two months after it was first granted, Magna Carta was annulled by the Pope, and it was not long before the barons were again at war with John.

The Articles of the Barons

Densely written manuscript of The Article of the Barons

The concessions made by John to his barons were outlined in a document known as the 'Articles of the Barons', to which the King's great seal was attached. Meanwhile the royal chancery produced a formal royal grant, based on the agreements reached at Runnymede, which became known as Magna Carta.

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Pope Innocent III

Pope Innocent III played a major role in the events surrounding Magna Carta, including its annulment in August 1215. He had previously made many attempts to enforce papal authority over secular rulers, and his determination to impose his judicial authority over the whole Latin Church culminated in the reforms of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

Pope Innocent received messengers from King John in the summer of 1215, asking him to annul Magna Carta. The Pope issued a papal bull, which survives in the British Library, declaring Magna Carta to be ‘null and void of all validity for ever’, on the grounds that it was ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people’.

The papal bull annulling Magna Carta

Manuscript page with wax seal attached to the bottom center of the manuscript. 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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Archbishop Stephen Langton

Following the death of Archbishop Hubert Walter in 1205, there was a prolonged dispute between King John, the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, and Pope Innocent III over who should succeed him. Stephen Langton was eventually elected Archbishop of Canterbury by the monks of Christ Church in December 1206, and he was consecrated by the Pope in 1207. However, John continued to refuse to accept him, and Langton was not installed at Canterbury until 1213 when the king finally made peace with the Pope.

Archbishop Langton became one of the leading mediators in the barons’ dispute with King John and in the negotiations at Runnymede. The first clause in Magna Carta confirmed ‘that the English Church shall be free and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired’, doubtless reflecting Langton’s influence. It may also be thanks to him that the Articles of the Barons has survived, since Langton apparently took this document away for safe-keeping after the meeting at Runnymede.

The free men

Free men formed a small proportion of the population of 13th-century England, but the most famous clause of Magna Carta, stating ‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned …’ directly applied to them. Although Magna Carta focused on the interests of the barons, a significant proportion of its clauses dealt with all free men, which included the barons, knights and the free peasantry.

The distinction between the free and the unfree peasantry (‘the villeins’) varied across the country. Generally, in contrast to an unfree villein, a free man could leave his manor, could buy or sell land, and owned his goods and possessions. He was not required to make customary payments to his lord, nor help to cultivate his lord’s land. Free men still had to attend their lord’s court, but they also had access to the royal courts, which offered greater protection for their rights and property.

The villeins

Very few clauses in Magna Carta dealt directly with the villeins – unfree peasants who formed most of the population. They were bound to their lord in a restrictive tie which they were not free to break. They had to spend some of their time cultivating their lord’s land without pay; they were not free to leave their manor; they did not own their goods and possessions; and they owed their lord numerous customary payments. Villeins also fell under the jurisdiction of their lord’s manorial court, without access to the protection of the royal courts.

Magna Carta limited the fines which could be imposed on villeins, so as not to deprive them of their livelihood. It also prohibited royal officials from seizing anyone’s goods without payment and forbade officials from arbitrarily forcing anyone to carry out bridge-building or riverbank repairs.

William Marshal

William Marshal, 4th Earl of Pembroke, was probably born in 1146. He was among King John’s loyal supporters and was one of the chief mediators in the years leading up to the granting of Magna Carta.

Following King John’s sudden death in 1216, William Marshal was appointed regent in place of Henry III, who was only nine years old. William was responsible for issuing revised versions of Magna Carta in 1216 and 1217, which secured baronial support for the young king. He died in 1219 and was buried in the Temple, London.

The papal legate Guala

Guala Bicchieri was the papal legate in England in 1216–1218, and protector of the young King Henry III, who was a ward of the Pope. Guala presided over Henry’s coronation at Gloucester on 28 October 1216, and he set his seal to the versions of Magna Carta issued in both 1216 and 1217, establishing that they had received papal approval.

King Henry III

Henry III (r. 1216–72), the eldest son of King John and Isabella of Angoulême, was critically important to the history of Magna Carta, since he issued a revised version of the document in 1225. The 1225 Magna Carta featured 37 clauses instead of the original 63, creating the text confirmed by Edward I (r. 1307–27) in 1297 and enshrined on the first statute roll.

Magna Carta, 1225

Manuscript of Magna Carta 1225 with a seal attached to the bottom of the page

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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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

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