Magna Charta I: Background to Runnymede

Originally posted by Mirrim on 09/13/06

Originally posted at My Left Wing, Feb. 19, 2006. It is somewhat revised and expanded for this site; I purposely kept the length very short over there since I was, at the time, testing the waters.

As I said when I first posted this at My Left Wing: before we really can know where we’re going, it’s sometimes useful to see how we got where we are. And the earliest really accessible source for the principles that gave rise to our system is the document considered the mother of all our laws: Magna Charta. Notice I said “accessible”. Magna Charta didn’t spring de novo like Athena from Zeus’s head. It was based on a large body of law, some customary (the “common law”), some written and current, and some written though discarded, forgotten, or superceded even at the time (like the Code of Alfred the Great). Though it is frequently cited rhetorically, I wonder how many have actually read the document. 

  There’s an additional reason as well. When I first wrote this for posting at My Left Wing, the parallels between John and our current administration were clear. The past few months have not lessened those parallels, making the background to Magna Charta, and the document itself, even more pertinent.

Before I speak of Magna Charta, though, it might be worthwhile to take a look at the causes of its production: the quarrel between King John of England and his barons, and even some of the causes of that. This will be a very idiosyncratic look: I’m no expert on Plantagenet England, just an interested amateur. While I hope to get my facts right (anyone who is an expert in the era—like, perchance, weeping for brunnhilde—feel free to correct them!), comments on people’s actions and conclusions will be my own. I’ve expanded this section from my MLW diary to include some of the more distant history involved. There are bits and pieces of 60 years of history here, so please bear with me; it’s all important to understanding Magna Charta. 

  Now, John of England (reigned 1199-1216), even before his reign started, had several strikes against him in the eyes of the English barons, and it only got worse with time. For one thing, he was not his father, and he didn’t come to the throne with his father Henry II’s advantages. Henry (reigned 1154-1189) had been almost literally the last of William the Conqueror’s heirs left standing, and he came to the throne in 1154 after one of those long dragged-out civil wars, usually dynastic but occasionally with other causes, which flared up in England every few generations until the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. William the Bastard of Normandy had left three legitimate sons. His eldest, Robert, got Normandy. His second, William Rufus, became King of England. The third, Henry I, grabbed the throne of England when William was killed before Robert could move to claim it, married a descendant of Alfred the Great, and held onto it…inheriting Normandy himself when both Robert’s sons died before their father. The Conqueror also had a daughter, Adela, who married a French nobleman; their son was Stephen of Blois. Unfortunately, Henry I’s son also died before he could inherit—leaving only Henry’s daughter Matilda, who had married first the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (thus she is sometimes called “the Empress Matilda” or “the Empress Maud”) and then, ten years before her father’s death, Geoffrey called Plantagenet from the broom plant (planta genista) he used as a badge. To the consternation of some of the Norman nobility Henry designated Matilda his heir, and she claimed the throne as “lady of the English”.

  No queen had ruled England—or France, for that matter—in her own right, ever (and none would until Henry VIII’s daughter Mary). Despite their misgivings, some of the nobility backed Matilda anyway, considering the daughter of the last king to have the better, or at least dynastically closer, claim; others backed Stephen, who had the weaker dynastic claim as the son of William the Conqueror’s daughter, but at least was male. The fighting went on for nearly 20 years, on and off; Matilda’s husband Geoffrey gained her Normandy, and she (and later her eldest son Henry) fought Stephen in England. Fans of the Brother Cadfael series, book or PBS-TV movies, will recognize the political scene here: this is indeed the background of those stories. The war only ended when, about a year before Stephen’s own death, his son Eustace drowned, and he was forced to recognize Matilda’s son as his heir. Henry was an energetic and effective king, intelligent and cunning, and too many people remembered the Bad Old Days of the civil war to cavil at his being autocratic, collecting taxes and other income with efficiency, reclaiming royal lands (and then some) as his own, demanding that castles built during the days of civil war be torn down, and generally reining in the barons. Even his quarrel with, and implication in the death of, Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170 did not lead to significant unrest in England; indeed, until his sons were old enough to chafe at their father’s refusal to give them any real share in power the realm was relatively peaceful. Part of John’s problems with his barons may well stem from his attempts to rule as his father did; but while in John’s day the king was still the “absolute” ruler, combining functions of government we would consider to be separate “branches” in his single person, there had been peace enough for long enough when he came to the throne that the barons may have been less likely to accept behavior from John that had been routinely tolerated from Henry.

  For another thing, John was not his brother. Richard Coeur-de-Lion (reigned 1189-1199), who inherited from their father, had been respected, even lionized (pun intended) by his nobility and people. Richard had been tall, blond, handsome, athletic, and a true hero: a leader of the Third Crusade, eager to respond to anyone’s incursions on his lands, or rebellious barons, with force, and looked every inch a king. John, if the accounts are true, was shorter, dark-haired, not particularly handsome, pudgy as he got older, and had more of a reputation for intrigue and treachery than warfare. Richard was not a total slouch at intrigue or treachery either, though he didn’t have the reputation for it his brother earned; none of the sons of Henry II were. After all, they had spent their early years of manhood, all of them (Henry the Young King, Richard, Geoffrey, and John), fighting their father in various combinations and with various other allies (including their mother, the already legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine) adding to the fun. Fraternal love, and even respect for their father, generally took a back seat to personal gain. But John, unlike his brothers Richard and Geoffrey, had little reputation as a fighter or a leader of men.  Richard, even before he left on crusade soon after taking the throne of England and the ducal seat of Normandy (and all the other lands belonging to his father and his mother) was one of the greatest knights of his time, with reputation as a fighter and leader of men few could equal.

  Which brings up another reason John was unlike his brother: Richard, King of England, was almost never there. Even when he wasn’t on crusade or held for ransom (and those two filled up the first five years of his reign!), Richard preferred his territories in France, and especially his mother’s Aquitaine. (Why? Maybe the food was better, the weather was better, people drank wine instead of beer. Seriously, the fighting was there, and his French nobles were more overtly rebellious; Richard died at the siege of a castle belonging to one of his vassals.) This left the barons freer to bicker amongst themselves. In the whole of his ten-year reign, Richard spent about six months in England. Nor, because of this, could Richard be the administrator John was, and their father had been; possibly in an attempt to get every penny owed him in taxes (and as much more as he could squeeze), John oversaw a reorganization of the royal chancery and administration that enabled him and his clerks to keep much better track of taxes owed and collected. This did not endear him to his barons, nor did his habit of calling for new taxes without their input. He assigned to himself, or occasionally to his supporters, another lucrative source of income, called “wardships”. Legally, a minor child or an unmarried woman not a widow (and even not all of them) could not control inherited property. Both groups required guardians, and those guardians had the right to take for their own use a “reasonable” portion of the profits from the property. John became notorious for assigning those wardships to himself, and even refusing to allow heiresses to marry (since the profits would now go to their husbands). There were many other legal complaints of this nature.

  Last but not least in the barons’ eyes, John had a reputation as a lecher, unlike his brother. Richard may not have been homosexual, as modern lore would claim. His appetite for women was never as strong as John’s, though. His production of acknowledged bastards (one) was clearly sub-par for the time. He married the most beautiful woman in Europe—and then parked her on Cyprus while he fought Saracens in Palestine. The marriage was childless, though it probably was consummated, failure to “perform one’s husbandly duties” at least once being one of the few grounds for annulment women had. John, on the other hand and if the stories are true, would force himself on anyone reasonably attractive, even if she were married to one of his nobles— especially if she were married to one of his nobles. No wife or daughter was safe, according to the tales. Whether it was simply lust and the power to indulge, or whether it was a deliberate attempt on John’s part to assert his power and humiliate his nobility by raping their wives and daughters is impossible, of course, to tell—as is the truth of the stories, since some of the noblemen supposedly wronged by John weren’t exactly “good citizens” themselves and had every reason to lie.

  John’s reputation wasn’t helped by his earlier attempt to grab power after engineering (with the help of Philip, King of France and Henry, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) Richard’s capture and imprisonment on his way home from the Crusade. This power grab was foiled by Richard’s Chancellor, Longchamp, backed by Richard’s Regent: Richard and John’s elderly but still formidable mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. If this all sounds a bit familiar, it should be: it’s the historical background behind most of the Robin Hood stories. Philip’s grievances are too complex to go into here: but among other reasons, he had a long history of encouraging quarrels among the Plantagenets—and picking up any bits of their territory he could while they were busy with each other. Richard he feared and respected on the battlefield; John he did not. For almost three years, while the ransom for Richard was collected, Philip felt free to help himself, bit by bit, to Plantagenet territory, a habit he continued with much more enthusiasm after Richard’s death. This ultimately led to another major grievance the English barons had with John: Philip by 1204 had dispossessed him of all his lands in northern France and for the next ten years John demanded their help—and their money—to finance wars to get them back.

  Philip was encouraged by the consternation caused by John’s treatment of the other heir to the throne, behavior not reassuring, legal, or even truly acceptable by the standards of the age; and it was not one of John’s better political moves. Arthur Duke of Brittany was the son of John’s and Richard’s brother Geoffrey; since Geoffrey was older than John, the argument could be made, by strict primogeniture, that Arthur’s claim was the better one, despite his being Henry’s grandson. Despite their differences over the years, though, Eleanor, always the practical politician, preferred her son to her grandson, and threw her support to John. Ultimately, John managed to capture Arthur, who was besieging his grandmother at the time (standard Plantagenet family politics again; they make Dallas or Desperate Housewives look tame), whereupon he tossed his fifteen-year-old nephew into one of his castles, and the young man was never seen again.  Nor were a lot of John’s other political prisoners over the years, but this one gave Philip legal cause for officially confiscating, and then actually conquering, John’s northern French territories. Again, it’s a bit complicated: John had seriously violated the medieval rules of war by not setting a ransom for his nephew after his capture and allowing him to be released after its payment. He was in violation of the oath of fealty he owed Philip by attacking another of Philip’s vassals (Arthur, Count of Brittany); while that may seem a bit strange, as Duke of Normandy and holder of other territories within the realm of France, John (as his father and brother before him) was a vassal of the King of France for those territories, as Arthur was for Brittany. Never mind that the King of France had no real authority in those areas; the legal principle still held, and Philip was within his rights to object to Arthur’s treatment and declare John dispossessed.

  Then there was the little matter of the Interdict. It’s difficult for the modern person to appreciate what a big deal this really was. John pissed off the Pope thoroughly by refusing to live with the result of the monks of Canterbury’s election, at the Pope’s suggestion, of Stephen Langton as Archbishop, since John had his own candidate in mind. (I’ll relate this story in more detail in a later installment.) Now, I assume most here have heard of excommunication; Pope Innocent eventually excommunicated John, too, but that is a punishment which applies primarily to one person, denying him or her attendance at Mass and the Sacraments of the Catholic Church (which was the only game in town then), and condemning his or her soul to Hell (unless atonement is made). It’s a personal damnation. Interdict condemned an entire country to hell, usually for the sins of its ruler: it’s clearly not useful in an era with religious alternatives, but in Europe’s Middle Ages, it meant: no Masses for the people to attend, no marriages, or Christian funerals (baptism still could occur); no forgiveness of sins. In an era in which Heaven and Hell were known as real places, not metaphors, this terrified even many of the nobility. Henry had seen England placed under Interdict for Thomas Becket’s death, and had only gotten out of it after swearing he hadn’t actually ordered it (despite the famous outburst taken as an order by four of his knights), an expensive penance, and a vow to go crusading (his penitential scourging by the monks of Canterbury took place much later). John seems not to have cared as much: whether he simply was less of a believer than many, or felt he was right, by God, and the Pope wrong, is impossible to tell.

  So the barons felt they had many causes for complaint, even before the precipitating events leading to the writing of the Great Charter and the meadow of Runnymede…and that is my story for next time.


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