King John tears up the Charter
In July 1215 the king sought annulment of the Charter from the pope on the grounds that he had been forced to submit to it under duress. On August 24 the pope obliged, condemning the Charter as infringing the king’s rights and so signalling the destruction of the settlement negotiated at Runnymede. The king began bringing in mercenaries from the Continent, while the barons offered the crown to Prince Louis, son of the king of France. John was gaining the edge in the war when, in October 1216, he contracted dysentery, and on October 18 died at Newark Castle.
The reissues of the Charter
Crucial to the success of the regime was the policy of amending and reissuing the Charter as the basis for a new peace settlement. In November 1216, in a stroke of genius, the Marshal and Guala took the original Charter, deleted from it the most controversial clauses specific to John’s reign, and reissued it as a document around which the opposing sides could unite. Initially the tactic did not work and the war raged on. A second reissue a year later, however, after the end of the war, was more successful and was accepted as definitive. On this occasion the forest clauses of the original were taken out and, expanded, were issued separately as the Charter of the Forest. Henceforth, people spoke not of the Charter, but of the Charters.
A new king
John’s death transformed the situation in England. Not only was the man chiefly responsible for the trouble now gone; his son and successor was a blameless nine yearold boy, King Henry III. In the opening years of Henry’s minority England was ruled by two very able men, the Regent, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, and his colleague, the papal legate Guala, who had the vision to bring the nation together again. Circumstances favoured them. In May 1217 the Marshal inflicted a decisive defeat on the rebels at Lincoln, and support for the Francobaronial coalition withered away. In September a lasting peace settlement was negotiated between the two sides at Kingston upon Thames, and Prince Louis returned to France.
The Charters become law
The final stage in the passage of the Charters to official status came in 1225, when Henry III’s minority ended. Now an adult, the king reissued the Charters yet again, this time in return for a grant of taxation. The Charters became England’s basic law, the essential ground-rules for the working of political society. Whenever in future there was trouble between king and barons, the first demand of the opposition was always for the reissue of the Charters. At the end of the crisis between Edward I and his barons over taxation in 1297 the Charters were copied onto the statute roll, confirming their special status.
Text by Professor Nigel Saul, Royal Holloway, University of London.