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.
King John (r. 1199–1216) was the third member of his family to have ruled England, in succession to his father King Henry II. The Plantagenets had married into the Norman dynasty that had ruled England since 1066. Successful in war and immensely ambitious, Henry II (r. 1154–89) carved out an empire for himself on either side of the Channel. From his mother he inherited a claim to the throne of England, made good in 1154 on the death of the usurping King Stephen. In France, by inheritance and by marriage to the great heiress, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry came to rule over a vast collection of lands stretching from the Channel as far south as the Pyrenees. To this he added conquests in Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The ancestry of King John
A genealogical roll of the English kings depicting the family history of the Angevin dynasty, including King John and Henry III (c. 1300 - 07).View images from this item (6)
Murder of Prince Arthur in Chronicle of Margam Abbey
Rumours circulated that Prince Arthur had been killed by King John. This near-contemporary chronicle describes John attacking Arthur in a drunken rage and throwing his body into the river Seine.View images from this item (1)
Image of the murder of Prince Arthur
This 18th century engraving depicts Arthur on his knees begging for his life.View images from this item (1)
King John’s loss of French territoryRebellion itself was nothing new. On several occasions under the Norman kings, barons and churchmen who considered the king tyrannical or excessive in his demands for tax rose up to demand redress. This had most recently occurred in a great rebel coalition of 1173–74 against King Henry II (r. 1154-89). The problem here was that Henry’s resources vastly outweighed those of his opponents. Consequently the rebellion of 1173-74 had resulted not in baronial victory but in a further leap forwards for royal power, the placing of Scotland under English control, and the claim by the King to extend his laws and taxes to yet further territory.
The disappearance of Arthur of Brittany changed all this. Tired of their lands being treated as a war zone, the barons of western France now rebelled against John, demanding justice. The French King, Philip Augustus (r. 1180–1223), posed as leader of their movement. John refused to attend trial at the French royal court. In consequence, Philip declared that John had forfeited all title to his lands in France. As far south as the Loire, the Plantagenet empire collapsed. Henceforth, the Capetians ruled in Normandy. John himself slunk back to England, his reputation in tatters. For the rest of his life, the determination to reconquer his lost lands was to poison relations between king and English barons. Faced with rising demands for tax, the barons grew increasingly disenchanted with their king.
The French conquest of Normandy in Grandes Chroniques de France
By 1204, John had lost the French territories he had inherited with the throne of England.View images from this item (2)
‘Bad’ King John?John was an unsuccessful king, but whether he was truly ‘evil’ remains more difficult to determine. Contemporaries accused him of murder, extortion and lechery. Some of these charges were true. Others became exaggerated in hindsight, when chroniclers came to look back on a reign that had so clearly ended in rebellion and civil war. Since God alone was believed to judge the outcome of battles, and since John was defeated in war, to contemporaries it was easy to assume that John was indeed a sinner abandoned by God. John lost not only his wars with Philip Augustus but his wider war of propaganda. The chroniclers upon whom we rely for our knowledge of events were all either clerks or monks. After 1205, John caused a breach between royal government and the Church that itself inevitably placed the chroniclers, which is to say the chief recorders of public opinion, in opposition to the King.
Portrait of King John hunting
This famous image shows King John hunting on horseback in the forest.View images from this item (2)
Portrait of King John from Matthew Paris's Historia Anglorum
This benign portrait of King John featuring in Matthew Paris’s renowned chronicle of English history contrasts sharply with the hostile treatment John receives in the text of the work.View images from this item (1)
John’s relationship with the ChurchThe Plantagenets had never enjoyed a good reputation with the Church. Henry II had been widely blamed for the death of Thomas Becket, declared a saint after his murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Henry and his sons had taxed the clergy, and had imposed their own courtiers as bishops. In 1205, John attempted to follow this tradition, demanding the promotion of a royal favourite as archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope, Innocent III (1161-1216), refused. Pressured by the Pope, the monks of Canterbury elected a man named Stephen Langton (1150-1228). Langton was an Englishmen, but had spent the past 30 years living and teaching in Paris. There he had used the good and bad kings of the Bible as models with which to criticize modern kingship. Kings, he argued, should obey written law. They should tax their subjects only in the case of dire necessity. They should rule for the public good, not for their own selfish glory.
Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
This manuscript contains the first known miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, depicting the Archbishop struck down while at prayer in Canterbury Cathedral.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms The British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website. For more information please refer to the following guidance.
Reliquary depicting St Thomas Becket’s martyrdom
The exterior of this casket is decorated with images of Thomas Becket’s murder, while the interior contained relics associated with the saint. Across Europe, a fascination with Becket’s murder was reflected in the steady trade in relics and representations of his death.View images from this item (1)
Seal of Stephen Langton
The seal of Stephen Langton’s contains on its reverse a depiction of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket.View images from this item (2)
Usage terms Public Domain
This manuscript includes a rare contemporary account of the papal Interdict of 1208. The original account had been removed and a replacement inserted, perhaps to avoid offending King John.View images from this item (1)
Bull of Innocent III taking England under his protection
Fearing a French invasion of England with papal support in 1213, King John made peace with the Church by letting the Pope become England’s feudal overlord. In return he secured the Pope’s support, which became crucial in 1215 when the Pope agreed to annul Magna Carta.View images from this item (1)
Precedents for Magna CartaIn his absence, many barons had refused to pay the special tax (called ‘scutage’) intended to pay for war in France. Some had begun openly to demand reform. Keen to protect the privileges of the Church, Archbishop Langton sought to broker a settlement. According to the chroniclers, it was Langton who now produced the coronation charter of Henry I (r.1100-35) as a model of the sort of reforms to which King John should be bound. In 1100, King Henry I of England had been obliged to agree a series of written promises, to limit his financial demands, to restore the good laws and customs of the English past, and to respect the liberties both of his barons and the Church.
Coronation charter of Henry I
Henry I’s Coronation Charter was known to King John’s barons, and influenced the negotiations at Runnymede in 1215.View images from this item (1)
The text of this coronation charter had survived, even though few of its promises had been kept. Elsewhere in Europe, rulers had issued similar charters, promising liberties to their subjects and a return to the good laws of the past. In 1212, for example, Simon de Montfort (1208–65), leading a campaign of conquest in southern France, had issued a long charter of liberties, known as the Statute of Pamiers, promising to uphold the privileges of the Church, to impose only reasonable taxation and to do justice freely and without demanding payment. This was a settlement almost certainly known to Langton, whose own brother fought in de Montfort’s army.
The Statute of Pamiers
The Statute of Pamiers was issued in December 1212. Many of its clauses deal with problems also addressed by the English Magna Carta. It was almost certainly known in England.View images from this item (1)
The road to RunnymedeSo it was that the English opposition in 1214 first began to demand a charter from King John as a guarantee of future good government. The precise terms here took many months of discussion. Drafts circulated, and one of them, known as the Unknown Charter, preserved today in the national archives of France, takes the form of a copy of Henry I’s coronation charter followed by a series of clauses to which King John is said to have agreed. The very first of these clauses, undertaking that the King ‘will arrest no man without judgment nor accept any payment for justice nor commit any unjust act’, later made up one of the central demands enshrined in Magna Carta.
The Unknown Charter
The ‘Unknown’ Charter begins as a copy of Henry I’s Coronation Charter. It then lists a series of additional clauses, beginning with the statement, ‘King John concedes that he will arrest no man without judgment nor accept any payment for justice nor commit any unjust act.’View images from this item (1)
So it was that barons and king converged upon Runnymede, mid-way between London and the King’s castle at Windsor. Here, following several days of negotiation, written terms were agreed and sealed with the King’s seal. We know this document as the ‘Articles of the Barons’ because it remained merely a draft, setting out a series of clauses, but as yet not issued in the King’s own name. It survives, almost miraculously, preserved by Archbishop Langton in his archive at Lambeth Palace, London, and thence, after various adventures, gifted to the British Museum in 1769. It was this document that, by 15 June 1215, was rewritten into the great charter of liberties known as Magna Carta.
The Articles 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.View images from this item (3)
 The Plantagenets took their name from the ‘broom plant’ (in French, the plante de genêt), which was supposedly used as an emblem by John's grandfather, Geoffrey count of Anjou. According to a legend that they themselves encouraged, they were ultimately descended from a she-demon, Mélusine: the devil's brood.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.