Historians and historical memory have a habit of anointing certain events as seminal, and Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter) is one of those. Or at least it is in the Anglosphere, loosely defined as those English-speaking democracies that initially evolved out of the great diaspora from the British Isles. So, as it celebrates its 800th birthday this month, expect to see various meditations on Magna Carta’s place in the long journey from absolute monarchy to parliamentary government.
Being a successful medieval king involved several attributes. For starters, it helped to have legitimacy as per the accepted succession protocols of the day. Then there was the personal matter of whether important people liked you, admired you, or feared you. Having all three would be perfect, but having none could be fatal. King John – the royal figure at the centre of Magna Carta – had difficulties across the board.
John was the third Angevin monarch, the Angevins being a French dynasty that nabbed the English crown in 1154. Founded by Henry II (Henri d’Anjou), the family added England to a raft of French possessions and became Western Europe’s most powerful political entity during the second-half of the 12th century. From the Scottish border to the Pyrenees, the Angevins were the most important players.
The dynasty’s founder, Henry, was respected for his ability although not necessarily loved. His son and successor, the celebrated Richard the Lionheart, was both admired and feared. In addition to being the embodiment of chivalry, Richard was the ablest and fiercest warrior of his age, all of which made him a dangerous man to cross. But John, his youngest brother and successor, was a different matter entirely.
Duplicitous, capricious, paranoid, gratuitously cruel and militarily inept, John was nobody’s idea of a model king. Within five years of ascending to the throne in 1199, most of the family’s vast French possessions had been lost. And other chickens soon came home to roost.
Starting with Henry, the Angevins had systematically increased royal power and prerogatives at the expense of the 160 or so Anglo-Norman families that constituted England’s Francophone aristocracy. Royal justice became more pervasive, effectively curtailing baronial power to the sometime benefit of “English freemen” further down the social scale.
And while that may not have been the primary Angevin intent, the effect was still real. Historian Dan Jones puts it this way: “People could protect their property and dispose of it as they chose by using the royal law. They could challenge their social superiors before the royal courts.”
There was also the matter of money. Whether it was going on Crusade or funding the continual wars in France to protect their territories there, the Angevins persistently needed large amounts of money. To get it, they deployed the full array of tools at their disposal – levies, taxes, fines and forfeitures. And John was particularly promiscuous in this regard, stockpiling enormous amounts of cash in various English castles.
Eventually, though, a significant number of barons went into open rebellion, which is how Magna Carta came to be. Conceived as a means of limiting royal power, its first incarnation can also be described as a failed peace treaty. True to form, John quickly backtracked, the war resumed, the rebels offered the throne to Prince Louis of France, and the French invaded.
However, a major obstacle was removed when John succumbed to dysentery in October 1216, to be succeeded by his nine-year-old son Henry III. Under the regency of the influential and widely esteemed William Marshal, the French invaders were quickly defeated, Magna Carta was revised and reissued, and peace was restored.
So what, then, was it all about? Was Magna Carta just a power realignment between the king and the aristocracy? Or was it something more fundamental, speaking to the principles of liberty and democracy?
In truth, and over time, it was both.
To be sure, the baronial motive was self-interested, and the “council of the realm” that would ensure the king’s compliance with the law bore no resemblance to a democratic assembly. But there was still the codification of a principle with regard to restraining absolute authority. And there was also what historian Robert Tombs calls “glittering phrases” that subsequently became synonymous with concepts like the right to trial by jury.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.