June 15, 1215 – England’s unpopular King John was forced to agree to a number of restrictions on his rule by signing a document now known as the Magna Carta.
If you had to blame someone for the Bill of Rights, it would have to be England’s King John. By the time John was crowned King of England in 1199, he had already ticked off a lot of powerful people. That pattern began in his childhood, as he grew up in a contentious household. In 1173, when John was only 7, his three older brothers (including Richard the Lionhearted) rebelled against their father King Henry II, at the urging of their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (can you imagine Thanksgiving at that house?). John, still a child, unsurprisingly broke with his brothers and stayed loyal to his dad. When Henry eventually squashed the rebellion (with only Eleanor being punished – go figure), he rewarded John with various lands forcibly taken from a number of English nobles who had sided with Richard. Then, in 1177, Henry named John as the Lord of Ireland, removing the current lord without notice. By the time he was 10, John had already made some powerful enemies.
Henry, by now having forgiven his rebellious sons, named Richard as his successor on the condition that Richard give up his claim to Aquitaine (the English king’s massive land holdings in France) and give it to John. When Richard refused, Henry ordered John to attack Aquitaine and forcibly take it from Richard. That “war” ended in a stalemate, and the family somehow reconciled – at least on paper – in 1184.
John then proceeded to make a mess of things in Ireland, which had only recently come under the control of the English crown, and tensions with the local Irish natives were understandably high. In less than a year he had managed to insult the local Irish leaders (purportedly by making fun of their unfashionable beards) and, failing to win their support, lost control of the country to Irish rebellions. He ended up leaving his mess and blaming in on the local administration.
Towards the end of the 1180’s King Henry’s health was failing (not surprising considering the family he had to deal with). Although Richard was still his named successor, Richard wanted to go on Crusade to the Holy Lands, and was worried that once he was gone, Henry would change his mind and appoint John King. Richard – for good reason, as it turns out – did not trust John farther than he could throw him. As a result, Richard rebelled against Henry once again, this time forming an alliance with the King of France against his own dad. John initially sided with his father against Richard, but then quickly switched sides when he saw that Richard would win. This final betrayal was probably what pushed Henry over the edge – he died shortly afterward, in 1189, brokenhearted.
Richard, now King, began planning his Crusade. His biggest worry, however, was that John would try to seize the throne while he was away, so he tried to buy John’s loyalty by giving him several valuable English estates (while keeping control over the castles in those counties in order to maintain military control, just in case). Childless, Richard named his nephew Arthur as his heir and made John promise to stay in Aquitaine and not set foot in England for three years, which he assumed would be enough time to do a little crusading and get back in time to rule the country (spoiler alert – it was not). Finally, he put the country in the hands of a couple of trusted advisors to rule until his return.
Just as he was about to leave, however, their mother, Eleanor, persuaded Richard to allow John back into the country. Big mistake. As soon as Richard was gone, John began plotting his takeover. He first managed to get the city of London to back his claim to the throne and forced one of Richard’s advisors into the Tower of London. When Richard did not return from the Crusade by the end of 1192, John began to spread the rumor that he had died. In fact, Richard had been captured the Duke of Austria on his way back to England, turned over to the Holy Roman Emperor, and was being held for ransom. While Richard’s mother Eleanor worked to raise the ransom, John was offering to pay the Holy Roman Emperor behind her back to keep him imprisoned.
After a year in captivity Richard was finally released, and he made his way back to England looking for blood. John hastily arranged an alliance with the King of France to oppose him, but was not militarily strong enough to oppose Richard, who retained the loyalty of most of England. John surrendered, Richard had himself crowned King again to remove anyone’s doubt, and for some reason forgave John (although he did strip him of all of the lands that he had been previously granted). For the next five years of Richard’s reign, John remained outwardly loyal, licking his wounds and biding his time.
When Richard died in 1199, John was crowned King with the support of his mother Eleanor as well as most of the English nobility, who ignored the legally superior claim of Richard’s nephew Arthur. Once in power, John went back to doing what he did best – making enemies. The main problem was John’s attitude – he firmly believed in the divine right of Kings – and so did whatever he wanted, without asking for the support of his nobles. He preyed on the wives of other nobles, and in 1200 he decided to dump his wife Isabella of Gloucester and marry Isabella of Angouleme (he apparently had a thing for rich women named Isabella). Interestingly enough, she was already engaged, and when her fiancé objected and organized an uprising against John in Aquitaine, John promptly crushed the rebellion, leading to the French King declaring all of John’s lands in Aquitaine forfeit. One year into his reign, John had created for himself a long and expensive war with France.
By 1204 John had suffered a series of humiliating military defeats, losing Normandy and most of Aquitaine. He would spend the rest of his reign trying to retake these lost lands, and military campaigns cost money. To pay for it, John instituted a number of tax hikes that were resented by everyone in England, including a version of an income tax as well as new import duties payable directly to his treasury. He also used these taxes to take the lands of nobles who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay them, which further irritated the English barons. As if pissing off his nobility weren’t enough, in 1208 he got into a nasty spat with the Pope over who would become the Archbishop of Canterbury, which led to the Pope excommunicating John. In retaliation, John seized church lands in England and fined them large sums of money (they kissed and made up in 1213, though, when John needed the Pope’s help to prevent a French invasion of England).
Behind all of these problems was a growing dissatisfaction among the rest of English nobility with John’s rule. The English nobles resented being forced to fight in France where they had no personal stake and were tired of paying for John’s military campaigns, which ended in defeat more often than not. The dam finally burst in 1214, when John suffered another crushing defeat in France, ending his hopes for retaking Normandy. In 1215 rebellious English barons allied against John, renouncing their allegiance to him. The rebels took control of London and other major cities. Lacking any support, John, humiliated, was forced to deal with their demands.
On June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymeade, John was forced to sign a peace agreement that not only dealt with the baron’s complaints but further established the “rights” that “free men” (well, the nobility, at least) enjoyed without royal interference. This document, later named the Magna Carta (at the time, it was known as the “Articles of the Barons”), promised protection from illegal imprisonment, speedy and fair trials by peers, and no taxation without the consent of the nobles.
John, of course, had no intent of honoring his agreement. As soon as he could, he convinced the Pope to declare the Magna Carta null and void. This led to full open warfare against the nobles, enveloping most of England. In the end, John died of illness in October of 1216 while slowly losing the war. His nine-year old son, Henry III, became king, with a trusted noble as regent to advise him until he became an adult. In 1217, Henry III reissued and reinstated the Magna Carta (with a few changes) as a way to gain support for his new government.
When Henry needed money for a new war with France in 1225, he reissued the charter again in exchange for the barons agreeing to new taxes – this time, though, the Charter specifically stated that Henry was agreeing to it with his own “free will.” In 1267, facing another baronial uprising, Henry again agreed publicly to abide by the terms of the Magna Carta. When his son, Edward I became king, he too confirmed Magna Carta as the law of the land (because, of course, he needed money for a war). By the end of the 13th century, Magna Carta had become well established.
Over the next several centuries Magna Carta became a standard part of English Government, with a number of revisions and restatements of its powers (and some additions, like the 1354 version which introduced the familiar term “due process of law”). England’s Parliament, which grew out of the council of barons created by the original Magna Carta, typically opened its sessions with a reading of the Charter. By the end of the 16th century, a type of urban myth developed around Magna Carta, as the common belief and understanding became that it was actually based on ancient rights and laws established before the Norman invasion of 1066. This, of course, was nonsense, but it helped give Magna Carta a kind of mythical status as an inviolable, almost holy, statement of natural rights of free men.
When English kings on the 17th century tried to reestablish the old “divine right of kings” and rule without any interference, Magna Carta was used to blunt that attempt. By then, Magna Carta had come to be commonly accepted as the protector of the ancient rights and liberties of free Englishmen (even though this was not historically accurate). Towards the end of the century struggles with the monarchy led the English barons not only to forcibly remover two kings (Charles I by forcibly removing his head, and James II by forcibly removing him to France) but also to create several more documents cementing the rights of free Englishmen as the law of the land, most notably the petition of rights and English Bill of Rights, which established such familiar modern rules as “no taxation without representation,” the right to petition the King, the right to bear arms (well, for Protestants, at least – long story), freedom of speech (in Parliament at least), a prohibition against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment, and a jury of one’s peers (which, at the time, meant men of property).
When English colonists came to the New World, they brought the principles of Magna Carta (and later the English Bill of Rights) with them. Colonial Charters all noted that colonists enjoyed the same liberties as free people in England. Some colonies, like Massachusetts Bay and Maryland, specifically referred to Magna Carta in their charters. When armed conflict with mother England came in the 1770’s, it began not as a war for independence but as a fight to force England to respect the colonists’ rights under Magna Carta (that, of course, would change in 1776).
So next time you’re arrested and are able to post bail, give a silent moment of thanks to King John.