Friday, 14 October 2016

The background to Magna Carta

The background to the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, lay in England having been poorly governed for many years, going back to the reign of John’s father, King Henry II.

Kings and barons

Henry’s great-grandfather, William the Conqueror, had brought an entirely new ruling class to England in the shape of aristocratic knights who had been well rewarded for their efforts by being given huge swathes of land from which they could extract vast fortunes. They were the ancestors of the barons who forced John’s hand at Runnymede.

However, although the barons were happy to live the good life in their English castles and sit almost at the top of the pyramid that became known as the feudal system, the person to whom they owed allegiance, namely the king, was a remote figure whose influence came to be seen as oppressive.

The Norman kings ruled over an empire that stretched well beyond the shores of England. By marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry Plantagenet became the ruler of lands that stretched from the Pyrenees to the north of France, to which England was added with the death of King Stephen in 1154 when Henry was only 21 years old. He therefore had divided loyalties.

One of Henry’s first problems was to exercise control over the barons, who had become virtual kings in their own fiefdoms during Stephen’s chaotic reign. Over a thousand castles had been erected illegally, and Henry ordered the destruction of many of them, which did not endear him to their owners.

Henry spent much of his reign outside England, leaving the day-to-day governing to his able chancellor, Thomas Becket. Indeed, it was when he was at his court in Normandy that he made the intemperate remark that led to the death of Becket, then Archbishop of Canterbury. After that, Henry was never as powerful again, being weakened in the sight of the Church, the people, and the barons.

This unpopularity was made worse when Henry, in an effort to mend fences with Rome, supported the Crusade to rescue Jerusalem from the Muslim forces that had occupied it and prevented Christians from accessing the “holy places”. In order to finance the venture, a ten per cent tax was levied in England, and taxes are always least popular with the people who have most to pay, in this case the rich landowning barons.

More problems under King Richard

Henry’s son Richard was even more of an absentee than his father, making only two visits to England during his entire reign from 1189 to 1199. The Crusades occupied his whole attention, and it was the barons of England who were expected to pay for them. As well as the taxes, Richard sold public offices and even pieces of territory (to the Scots) to raise money.

When Richard was captured and held for a “king’s ransom”, the situation became even worse, with a tax of 25 per cent being levied, as well as the silver crosses from churches and cathedrals being melted down. It was no wonder that the country was virtually bankrupt when Richard eventually returned home for a brief visit before leaving again, never to return.

Richard’s brother John had been looking after England for virtually the whole of Richard’s reign, and had therefore been at the forefront of the tax-gathering operations. However, it was hardly in John’s interest for Richard to make a speedy return, and it is almost certain that much of the raised money did not go towards the ransom payment.

How much was King John to blame?

Given all the circumstances, it is somewhat unfair to see John as the wicked brother in contrast to the nobility of good King Richard, as portrayed in the Robin Hood legends. Had it not been for the fecklessness of Richard, sparked originally by the unwise actions of their father, the country would not have been in the dire straits that it was when John became king, although it is certainly the case that John was in large part responsible for the rebellion that came about.

John certainly had none of the military skills of his brother, and he became known as “John Lackland” when various parts of the Angevin Empire fell away during his reign.

However, by alienating the Church he gave himself a powerful enemy, to whom the vast majority of the nobles and people were loyal. In order to raise money, John seized Church lands, and the Pope’s response was to excommunicate John and close all the churches for five years. This meant that no weddings, baptisms or funerals could take place, so many children would have been born as bastards and could not, in the people’s eyes, go to Heaven if they died young, being unbaptised and buried in unconsecrated ground.

In desperation, John acted with no sense of respect for property or person by imprisoning people at will, many of whom starved to death, and taking their property.

Another contributory factor to Magna Carta was rampant inflation, caused by coin-clipping, whereby the weight of the gold in the coins was less than it should be, thus devaluing the currency. Many of the clauses in Magna Carta had to do with economic and commercial matters.

Well, quite a lot actually!

In short, the background to Magna Carta was that John had been dealt a bad hand, and he did not have the skills to rescue the situation. Everything he tried only made things worse, although he was also visited by bad luck, such as when the crown jewels were accidentally lost in transit when the carts carrying them fell into quicksand.  

As an absolute monarch, the recourse to oppression was clearly a great temptation, and that was the course John chose. However, the moral high ground was clearly forfeited by his actions, although it should also be remembered that the barons who opposed him were concerned largely with their own private interests rather than the wellbeing of mankind in general.

The presentation of Magna Carta to King John for his signature was the action of the most powerful people in the land, namely the barons, imposing their will on someone who had less power, namely the king. During the reign of John’s son and successor, Henry III, the process was to move another step down the same path, with the nobles making their voice heard when they established the country’s first Parliament.

© John Welford