The Making of Magna Carta

Making of the Magna Carta
Our knowledge of what happened in the Middle Ages comes mainly from the chroniclers, the monks and clerks who wrote year by year accounts of events.

King John and the Angevin Empire

King John (r. 1199-1216) followed his elder brother Richard as ruler not only of England but of a wide assemblage of lands in western France, including Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. The existence of this Angevin ‘empire’ was resented by the French king, Philip II, whose ambition was to destroy it. In 1204 King Philip over-ran Normandy but John, humiliated, was determined to recover it. In 1214 ten years of effort to win Normandy back ended in failure in the defeat at Bouvines in Flanders.

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Isabella of Angoulême, John’s queen and the mother of Henry III. John’s provocative marriage  to her in 1200 was a key factor in Phillip II’s seizure of John’s French lands.  (tomb effigy in Fontevraud Abbey, France)

Isabella of Angoulême, John’s queen and the mother of Henry III. John’s provocative marriage to her in 1200 was a key factor in Phillip II’s seizure of John’s French lands.
(tomb effigy in Fontevraud Abbey, France)

The Battle of Roche-aux-Moines. As part of a coordinated assault to win back his French territories in 1214, John (shown here in red surcoat with a crowned helmet) invaded Poitou and besieged Roche-aux-Moines. He was forced to retreat when Prince Louis of France arrived on the scene and the Poitevin barons refused to fight.<br />(British Library, Royal MS. 16 G VI f.385)

The Battle of Roche-aux-Moines. As part of a coordinated assault to win back his French territories in 1214, John (shown here in red surcoat with a crowned helmet) invaded Poitou and besieged Roche-aux-Moines. He was forced to retreat when Prince Louis of France arrived on the scene and the Poitevin barons refused to fight.
(British Library, Royal MS. 16 G VI f.385)

The Battle of Bouvines, 27 July 1214. John’s allies, including his nephew the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV and the Count of Flanders, were to attack France from the north-east. At Bouvines they suffered a catastrophic defeat which ended John’s hopes of recovering Normandy.<br />(British Library, Royal MS. 16 G VI f.379)

The Battle of Bouvines, 27 July 1214. John’s allies, including his nephew the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV and the Count of Flanders, were to attack France from the north-east. At Bouvines they suffered a catastrophic defeat which ended John’s hopes of recovering Normandy.
(British Library, Royal MS. 16 G VI f.379)

Opposition to King John

The sequence of events that was to culminate in the meeting at Runnymede began with local opposition to John’s levying of taxes to pay for his campaigns in 1214. The resistance began in the north of England and spread to East Anglia. At Bury St Edmunds the northern lords and their allies swore an oath to force the king to agree a settlement based on the laws of King Henry I (r. 1100-35). Medieval rebels always looked to past precedent to justify their demands for reform.

Civil War

By the beginning of 1215, as John refused the rebels’ demands, England tottered on the brink of civil war. At Stony Stratford the rebels renounced their oaths of homage to the king, in effect declaring war on him. With the fall of London to the barons in May, John was obliged to negotiate. He moved from Odiham in Hampshire to Windsor, while the advance guard of the barons moved west to Staines. Runnymede, where the two sides met, was half-way between.

Coming to terms

Lacking a rival prince to crown in John’s place, the barons sought a charter of liberties in which the king would agree to rule his people justly. For two hectic weeks in June they negotiated with the king’s representatives, producing draft after draft, until on June 10 a reasonably final set of terms was agreed known as the ‘Articles of the Barons’. A copy of this document survives in the British Library in London. It is likely that a key role in the negotiations was played by Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, a former enemy of the king’s, and one of the foremost intellectuals of the day.

Peace-making

On June 15 in a formal peace-making ceremony at Runnymede John gave his assent to the Charter of Liberties. Four days later oaths were sworn by the two sides to observe the terms of the Charter, and the barons then renewed their homage. The king’s clerks were by now busy writing out copies of the Charter for despatch across the country. To secure the king’s compliance with the Charter, the barons chose a group of Twenty Five, who were charged with making sure its terms were carried out.

Text by Professor Nigel Saul, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Linked Pages

Surrey in the Age of Magna Carta

Magna Carta: What it says

Magna Carta: Destruction and Revival

Magna Carta as Symbol and Myth

Magna Carta in the Twenty-First Century

Other webpages and websites

Sealing of The Magna Carta – statue at Chertsey Museum

The Magna Carta Project

SurreyMagna Carta

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