On this date in 1215 King John of England sealed Magna Carta, also called Magna Carta Libertatum or The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, at Runnymede, on the bank of the River Thames near Windsor. Magna Carta was the first document imposed upon a King of England by a group of his subjects, the feudal barons, in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their rights. The charter is widely known throughout the English speaking world as an important part of the protracted historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in England and beyond.
The 1215 charter required King John to proclaim certain liberties and accept that his will was not arbitrary—for example by explicitly accepting that no freeman (in the sense of non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land, a right that still exists under English law today. The name Runnymede may be derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘runieg’ (regular meeting) and ‘mede’ (mead or meadow), describing a place in the meadows used to hold regular meetings. The Witan, Witenagemot or Council of the Anglo-Saxon kings of the 7th to 11th centuries was held from time to time at Runnymede. The Council usually met in the open air.
The water-meadow at Runnymede is the most likely location at which King John sealed the Magna Carta, and is the site of the Magna Carta Memorial. Magna Carta Island on the opposite bank of the river is another possible site. The charter indicates Runnymede by name. The Magna Carta influenced common and constitutional law, as well as political representation and the development of parliament. The charter’s association with ideals of democracy, limitation of power, equality and freedom under law has attracted placement at Runnymede of monuments and commemorative symbols.
Magna Carta was preceded and directly influenced by the Charter of Liberties in 1100, in which King Henry I had specified particular areas wherein his powers would be limited. Magna Carta was important in the colonization of North America, as England’s legal system was used as a model for many of the colonies when they were developing their own legal systems.
It was translated into vernacular French as early as 1219, and reissued later in the 13th century in modified versions. The later versions excluded the most direct challenges to the monarch’s authority that had been present in the 1215 charter. The charter first passed into law in 1225; the 1297 version, with the long title (originally in Latin) “The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, and of the Liberties of the Forest,” still remains on the statute books of England and Wales.
Despite its recognized importance, by the second half of the 19th century nearly all of its clauses had been repealed in their original form. Three clauses currently remain part of the law of England and Wales, however, and Magna Carta is generally considered a major part of the uncodified constitution (England has no written constitution). It has special constitutional status along with the Habeas Corpus Act (1679), the Petition of Right (1628), the Bill of Rights (1689), and the Act of Settlement (1701).
It was Magna Carta, over other early concessions by the monarch, which survived to become a “sacred text.” In practice, Magna Carta did not generally limit the power of kings in the medieval period, but by the time of the English Civil War it had become an important symbol for those who wished to show that the King was bound by the law. It influenced the early settlers in New England and inspired later constitutional documents, including the United States Constitution.
A group of barons began to conspire against King John in 1209 and in 1212; promises made to the northern barons and John’s submission to universal rule of the papacy in 1213 delayed a French invasion. Over the course of his reign a combination of higher taxes, unsuccessful wars that resulted in the loss of English barons’ titled possessions in Normandy following the Battle of Bouvines (1214), and the conflict with Pope Innocent III (ending with John’s submission in 1213) had made King John unpopular with many of his barons.
In 1215 some of the most important barons engaged in open rebellion against their king. Such rebellions were not particularly unusual in this period. Every king since William the Conqueror had faced rebellions. What was unusual about the 1215 rebellion was that the rebels had no obvious replacement for John; in every previous case there had been an alternative monarch around whom the rebellion could rally. Arthur of Brittany would have been a possibility, if he had not disappeared years earlier whilst he was John’s prisoner. He was widely believed to have been murdered by John. The next closest alternative was Prince Louis of France, but as the husband of Henry II’s granddaughter, his claim was tenuous, and the English had been at war with the French for thirty years. Instead of a claimant to the throne, the barons decided to base their rebellion on John’s oppressive government. In January 1215, the barons made an oath that they would “stand fast for the liberty of the church and the realm,” and they demanded that King John confirm the Charter of Liberties, from what they viewed as a golden age.
John attempted to use the lengthy negotiations to avoid a confrontation while he waited for support from the Pope and hired mercenaries, adopting various measures to weaken the rebels’ position and improve his own, including taking the cross as a crusader in March 1215 (which the Pope applauded but most other observers considered insincere), demanding a new oath of allegiance, and confirming London’s city charter in May 1215. During negotiations between January and June 1215, a document was produced, which historians have termed ‘The Unknown Charter of Liberties,’ seven of the articles of which later appeared in the ‘Articles of the Barons’ and the Runnymede Charter. In May, King John offered to submit issues to a committee of arbitration with Pope Innocent III as the supreme arbiter, but the barons continued in their defiance. With the support of Prince Louis, the French heir, and of King Alexander II of the Scots, they entered London in force on 10 June 1215, with the city showing its sympathy with their cause by opening its gates to them. They, and many of the moderates not in overt rebellion, forced King John to agree to a document later known as the ‘Articles of the Barons,’ to which his Great Seal was attached in the meadow at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John on 19 June 1215, which is when the document Magna Carta was officially agreed upon by all parties.
In return for King John’s submission to his papal and universal authority, Innocent III declared Magna Carta annulled, though many English Barons did not accept this action. The contemporary, but unreliable chronicler, Roger of Wendover, recorded the events in his Flores Historiarum. A formal document to record the agreement was created by the royal chancery on 15 July: this was the original Magna Carta, though it was not known by that name at the time. An unknown number of copies of it were sent out to officials, such as royal sheriffs and bishops.
The 1215 document contained a large section that is now called clause 61 (the clauses were not originally numbered). This section established a committee of 25 barons who could at any time meet and overrule the will of the King if he defied the provisions of the Charter, seizing his castles and possessions if it was considered necessary. This was based on a medieval legal practice known as distraint, but it was the first time it had been applied to a monarch.
Distrust between the two sides was overwhelming. What the barons really sought was the overthrow of the King; the demand for a charter was mere subterfuge. Clause 61 was a serious challenge to John’s authority as a ruling monarch. He renounced it as soon as the barons left London; Pope Innocent III also annulled the “shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the King by violence and fear.” He rejected any call for restraints on the king, saying it impaired John’s dignity. He saw it as an affront to the Church’s authority over the king and the ‘papal territories’ of England and Ireland, and he released John from his oath to obey it. The rebels knew that King John could never be restrained by Magna Carta and so they sought a new king.
England was plunged into a civil war, known as the First Barons’ War. With the failure of Magna Carta to achieve peace or restrain John, the barons reverted to the more traditional type of rebellion by trying to replace the monarch they disliked with an alternative. In a measure of some desperation, despite the tenuousness of his claim and despite the fact that he was French, they offered the crown of England to Prince Louis of France. Therefore, as a means of preventing war, Magna Carta was a failure, rejected by most of the barons, and was legally valid for no more than three months. The death of King John in 1216, however, secured the future of Magna Carta.
Magna Carter was, thus, not the single great turning point in English history as it is characterized in basic school textbooks; the simplistic notion that most people believe. It was based on a royal charter that was over 100 years old at the time John went to Runnymede, and it had little effect on John’s subsequent actions. Nonetheless, most of its central articles were reaffirmed in later charters, and it was, indeed, the first time that an English king had sealed a document limiting his powers against his will.
King John’s nine-year-old son Henry was crowned King of England in Gloucester Abbey, though much of England lay under the usurper prince Louis. The papal legate Guala Bicchieri declared the struggle against Louis and the Barons a holy war, and the loyalists led by William Marshal rallied around the new king. Earl Ranulf of Chester left the Regency to Marshall. Marshall and Guala issued a Charter of Liberties, based on the Runnymede Charter, in the King’s name on 12 November 1216 as a Royal concession, in an attempt to undermine the rebels. The Charter differed from that of 1215 in having only 42 as compared to 61 clauses; most notably the infamous article 61 of the Runnymede Charter was removed. The Charter was also issued separately for Ireland. Subsequent charters based on Magna Carta were issued in 1217, 1225, 1237, and 1297.
Edward I of England reissued the Charter of 1225 in 1297 in return for a new tax. Constitutionally, the Magna Carta of Edward I is the most important because it remains in Statute today (albeit with most articles now repealed).
The clauses of the 1297 Magna Carta inherited from 1215 and still on statute are:
Clause 1, the freedom of the English Church
Clause 9 (clause 13 in the 1215 charter), the “ancient liberties” of the City of London
Clause 29 (clause 39 in the 1215 charter), a right to due process
1. FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever.
9. THE City of London shall have all the old Liberties and Customs which it hath been used to have. Moreover We will and grant, that all other Cities, Boroughs, Towns, and the Barons of the Five Ports, as with all other Ports, shall have all their Liberties and free Customs.
29. NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.
I’ve discussed peasant food in Medieval England before (30 May 2014). Now is the turn of the nobility. Here’s a 13th century recipe for a kind of pie that was popular. It resembles what we would call a quiche these days. If you don’t feel like knocking off a pigeon in the park you can find squab in good markets or online. Otherwise another small bird, such as a game hen, will work.
King John’s Croustade
8-12oz/225-350g wholemeal or whole wheat pastry
2 chicken joints (2 breasts or 2 whole legs)
? cup dry white wine
2 cups light stock
½ oz/15 g butter
2 oz/50g mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 oz/25g raisins
3 large eggs
½ tsp ground ginger
salt and pepper
Roll out 8 oz/225g of the pastry and line a 20cm (8 inch) flan dish, back the crust blind. Put the pigeon in a pot with the stock, wine, pepper, and cloves and cook very slowly for 30 minutes. Add the chicken and continue to cook for a further 45 minutes or until the meat of both birds is really tender.
Meanwhile cook the mushrooms lightly in the butter. Remove the birds from the stock and bone them. Cut the flesh into quite small pieces, mix it with the mushrooms and the raisins and spread them over the base of the flan case.
Beat the eggs with a fork and season with the salt, pepper, and ginger. Add 1 cup of the cooking juices and pour over the meat in the flan case. If you want to have a lid, roll out the rest of the pastry and cover the flan. Bake at 350°F/180°C for 25 minutes if uncovered, 35 minutes if covered. Serve warm.