Magna Charta II: The Sources of Conflict

Originally posted by Mirrim on 09/21/06

Previously, I reviewed the deeper background to Magna Charta: the reasons why the barons started out disliking John, and then got even crankier (here). Now it’s time for an overview of the more immediate causes: the Interdict and related matters, taxes (it’s always taxes!), and more about John’s relationships with his barons—and perhaps the dispelling of a few myths about the background of Magna Charta. One more diary about the history after this, as I get into the barons’ revolt and the scene at Runnymede next time, and then I’ll start reviewing the document itself; it’s longer than most people think. And that project is a lot more complex than I thought it would be. Again, I’ve revised and added to this essay for its reposting here.

  In June of 1205, Archbishop Hubert Walter of Canterbury, who was also John’s Chancellor, died. The two roles were not officially linked, but powerful medieval churchmen frequently were tapped by kings for important roles in government due to their education and experience. (The Church was trying to forbid the practice, and eventually succeeded; indeed, it continues the ban to this day by requiring priests or nuns running for public office to renounce one or the other, their vows or their political aspirations. The former president of Haiti, Jean-Claude Aristide, is an example.) Walter, as Archbishop of Canterbury, had supported John for the throne, and had been an able and effective head of John’s Chancery, the office that handled much of the non-financial bureaucracy for the kingdom.

Unlike today, when bishops are mostly appointed by Rome and Rome is a phone call or e-mail away, most dioceses had a small monastery attached to the cathedral called the “cathedral chapter”, and those monks had the right to elect the bishop of the diocese. These elections were supposed to be “free”: the cathedral chapter in theory could elect anyone they pleased. Not infrequently, though, the king would have someone in mind and made his opinions known; sometimes it was as blatant as “You are required to hold free elections; We (the king) require you freely to elect So-and-So.” It was understandable that a king would want someone he felt he could work with; besides the possibility of bishops or archbishops becoming royal bureaucrats, they were also major feudal landholders and members of any advisory council a king might have. There was a tradition amounting to law in England, that the major benefactor or feudal lord of a church or monastery had the right to appoint its priest or abbot (the Church was trying to end this), and this principle dovetailed nicely with the king’s appointment of bishops. As the archbishop of Canterbury was a landholder on a par with the great earls of the kingdom as well as the spiritual head of all England, John naturally wanted his own man in the job: he proposed giving it to his secretary, one John de Gray, already Bishop of Norwich.

  The election was subject to approval by the Pope (which could take months to arrive, but in the interim the business of the diocese could go on under the elected bishop), and the Pope intervened only when an election was disputed. Since the Archbishop of Canterbury was the head of the English “province” of the Church, the other English bishops wanted to be involved in the election. The monks objected, which meant the election was under dispute, and immediately John referred the question, quite properly, to Rome—and the delegation was told to encourage the Pope to appoint John’s candidate, though no real election could take place until the dispute between the monks and the bishops was resolved. When the monks found out that John’s agents were pushing his candidate with the Pope, they secretly elected the head of their chapter, Prior Reginald, as bishop, and sent him on to Rome with a delegation of monks; then denied they had done so to John, and at a second election chose John’s candidate de Grey, whom they sent to Rome with another delegation. The Pope now had two apparently “elected” bishops; neither John, nor the chapter, nor for that matter the two candidates or their entourages, would back down, and when the Pope told the monks who were part of the two delegations to start over then and there, they deadlocked between the two. The pope thereupon suggested a third man: Stephen Langton, already a cardinal (this was originally an honor given to those priests of certain parishes in Rome who were the local “chapter” and elected the Pope, aka “the Bishop of Rome”) and a respected teacher of theology at the University of Paris, and the monks from Canterbury agreed. Everyone was happy, except the two disappointed candidates—and the king.

  John had several objections to the Pope’s choice: Langton was a teacher, not an administrator; and though he was English by birth, he had taught for many years in Paris, the heart of the realm of the King of France, John’s enemy. The real reason, I suspect, was that Langton was not someone John knew; and John automatically distrusted anyone he didn’t know, especially if they weren’t dependent on him for power and prestige. John refused to allow Langton into England. The dispute went back and forth for over a year, and at this point, John probably had his barons agreeing with him; most of them were comfortable with the idea that the king “appointed” bishops, since they claimed the right to appoint abbots to monasteries their ancestors had founded, and priests in “their” parishes. In March of 1208, the Pope lost patience and declared England under Interdict. John had known it was coming for some time, and immediately counterattacked. On the basis that if the clergy weren’t going to be doing their jobs—Masses, marriages, burials, and the like—they didn’t deserve to be supported, he revoked all their land holdings. They could pay a fine and get them back, but were required to turn the bulk of the income over to the king for the duration of the Interdict. To add insult to injury, he arrested and held for ransom the female “companions” many priests had in violation of Church law; scandalously, most priests bailed their girlfriends out promptly. Between the two, John got a huge chunk of cash for the treasury immediately and the ongoing profits from Church land for the duration, solving his money problems for quite a while.  This gave him no incentive to resolve the situation. By 1213, the Interdict had dragged on for five long years, despite the Pope upping the ante by allowing Langton to excommunicate the king in 1209. Along with personally damning his soul to hell, it made life uncomfortable for a ruler, since it allowed his subjects to ignore their oaths of fealty if they so chose. John remained unmoved; most of the barons stayed loyal, though they were muttering.

  Then John got word in 1212 that Pope Innocent was about to unleash his ultimate sanction: deposing the king. This was a step Popes rarely needed to take, though they claimed the right: it would absolve all John’s subjects of any oaths of loyalty, make null and void any treaties, and such was the political power of the Church at the time that the Pope could possibly make it stick (unlike the later Pope who took the same step against Elizabeth I), usually by encouraging an enemy of the deposed king to invade or empowering unhappy nobles to revolt. John had both. Deposition would encourage not only the barons, but Philip of France, who was considering invading England, and allow him to do so with the Church’s blessing. John caved in, and along with accepting the archbishop he distrusted, he also yielded his kingdom to the Pope and received it back as a fief: in other words, he became officially the Pope’s vassal. This was not an innovation: several other kingdoms already had the same status. It didn’t stop Philip from his invasion plans (ultimately scotched by the destruction of his invasion fleet), but it did buy John a little breathing room. The barons continued to mutter and worry, despite the reconciliation.

  The reasons for their concern were many. If John distrusted people he didn’t know, he could be positively paranoid about people he did know, especially those who owed little or none of their power and prestige to him. The most loyal baron could be suspected on no real evidence. Even William Marshal, who had served three Plantagenet kings, had assisted John to the throne, and was loyal to a fault, was not immune from John’s paranoia. (Marshal himself is a fascinating character: the younger son of an earl, he had started out with only his knighthood, horse and armor, and his talent and skill. He made his fortune originally on the “tournament circuit”, a semi-organized round of competition and the favorite spectator sport of the age; winners were awarded the arms and horses of men they defeated, and could ransom them back to the owner. Marshal did well enough to become the Tiger Woods, David Beckham, or Michael Jordan of his day, with the friendship of John’s father Henry, and had married the heiress of the earl of Pembroke. This gave him lands in Wales, England, Ireland and France, and made him the highest-ranking noble in the kingdom after anyone royal.) John regularly required his nobles to send him hostages to ensure their good behavior, something ordinarily asked of defeated enemies such as William of Scotland or Llewellyn of Wales; that John had hanged his Welsh hostages in July of 1212 in response to another revolt by Llewellyn did not reassure those nobles who had sent hostages to him. John commonly demanded unheard-of amounts from heirs to titles and lands before they could take possession: called “reliefs”, these were expected, but were supposed to be “reasonable”, not the equivalent of a year’s income or more, an amount which could, on the king’s whim, be forgiven, paid in installments (leaving the person in hock to the king and at risk of foreclosure), or demanded up-front. The last meant borrowing, and the only real source of credit (since Christians could not charge interest) were the Jewish financiers; interest was high, on a par with some credit cards today or worse, and payments could be crippling. And while John insisted that his barons not dispossess any of their vassals and tenants of lands without a legal judgment, even before the Interdict he had had no such compunctions himself, demanding castles and lands be turned over to him apparently arbitrarily, on the basis of whim, dislike, or profound distrust. John hounded more than one of his earls into exile, and pushed several into bankruptcy.

  Last, there were taxes. Giving John his due, he had started with a problem. Richard had begun his rule with a full treasury; Henry had preferred diplomacy to fighting when he could. Richard, on the other hand, had campaigned year-round, not holding to the usual truces which kept feudal levies home from harvesttime through the nasty weather of fall and winter, into the Truce of God periods (Christmas and Lent through Easter and beyond), which “fortuitously” got the crops in before the fighting season started, and allowed men to go off to war without worrying about next winter’s food as much. Then, too, the men of feudal levies legally could be required to stay in the army only forty days a year, or they had to be paid. The possibility of campaigning year-round required a king to hire mercenaries, which were expensive. Add in the costs to the kingdom of Richard’s Crusade and ransom, and John inherited the throne with a fairly empty Treasury by comparison. Unfortunately, there were few reliably recurrent sources of income for a medieval king: profits and rents from his own lands, of course; and fines and penalties for legal misdemeanors and violations of Forest Law (a special category). Reliefs for inheritances were useful, but sporadic. Taxes were a matter of royal decree, some with the “consent” of the barons: customs duties; taxes on various kinds of items (wine, for instance); general taxes or “aids”, such as a tax on wealth: the Thirteenth I mentioned last time. Lastly, there were the customs of “scutage” and “fine”. Scutage (from the word scutum, Latin for shield) was a particular tax which derived from the feudal requirement that a lord come in person to serve in war for a set period of time, usually forty days, bringing so many knights (the number varied with the size of the fief), with their support personnel, to his lord’s banner when called upon. For many years, it had been acceptable for a lord to pay hard cash, so much per knight per day. On top of this, a lord was required to attend the king in person; if he did not want to do so, he had to pay a “fine” to be excused. A baron could recoup all or most of the money for the scutage itself from his knightly tenants, but the fine came out of his own pocket. Henry had asked for eight scutages in thirty-four years; Richard three in ten years (plus his ransom, which was a separate matter). John had so far asked for ten in thirteen years, mostly for the purpose of getting back the lands in France Philip had taken, and had asked for double the rates his father used; mercenaries were getting more expensive. The barons were tired of paying, especially since they seemed to be no closer to regaining the estates (and the income from those estates) some of them had lost when Philip had taken Normandy nearly ten years before.

  When John initially gave in to pressure from the Pope in mid 1213 and accepted Stephen Langton as Archbishop, from the least prominent simple landed knight to the highest in the land, Earl William Marshal, the barons were unhappy with their king (to say the least). Some were more unhappy than others: Marshal and many others were unswervingly and uncomplainingly loyal, but there were several who were openly hostile. (Most of those had been exiled, but that could quickly change.) Any of the lords who had attracted John’s suspicion, though, had had to surrender lands or give John hostages for their good behavior. That included most of the great lords of England from Marshal on down, and many of the lesser ones. All of them saw John’s behavior toward the Church during the Interdict and must have wondered if the same tactics would be used wholesale against them. There were rumblings about many things John had done as being against law and custom, and the “good customs” of previous reigns. (Everybody had conveniently forgotten, after fifteen years without him, what an autocratic, imperious bastard John’s father could be.) Circumstances would soon increase the tension.

 

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