Why was it written?
King John inherited his throne of England and huge ancestral lands in France from his brother Richard I. He also inherited a lot of problems, including serious financial difficulties. Very early in his reign he lost all his French territories in a conflict with the King of France, and the effect of this was to leave John seriously weakened, and particularly so in relation to his senior barons, who almost all held domains in Normandy as well as England. And so for the remainder of his reign John was both trying to reassert his authority and extremely short of money. This combination put him into a succession of struggles with the Church, the barons, and the cities of England, and meant that where he had particular rights – such as in the administration of justice – he was trying to ensure the maximum return for the Crown. Since the barons were not only powerful landowners but also a military caste, there was always the risk of terrible armed conflict such as had engulfed the country during the lifetime of John’s grandmother Matilda, in her struggle with King Stephen.
Magna Carta, issued in June 1215, was an attempt to prevent an immediate civil war. It was the result of negotiations between the king’s party and a group of rebellious barons, negotiations facilitated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. These took place on ‘neutral’ territory at Runnymede, near the royal castle at Windsor. By this agreement the king guaranteed many rights which he or his officials had disputed, and these included such things as the freedom of the Church, the rights of towns, and that justice could not be bought or sold. The proof of these royally granted or acknowledged rights was the great charter, copies of which were sent around the country. In an age before mass communication, documents bearing the king’s great seal were the evidence of royal policy. It seems that thirteen copies were produced by scribes working for the king in 1215, of which only four now survive. The text of these is the same, though their appearance differs because they were all individually written.
The agreement at Runnymede also placed several restrictions on the king’s future action which he was bound to find humiliating, and John sought, and quickly gained, the Pope’s agreement to annul Magna Carta. The conflict with the barons was only delayed, and it was in the course of pursuing it that John died the following year. Ironically, it was John’s death that gave rise to the permanent place of his Magna Carta in English and world history. His son Henry III was too young to reign in person, and so to ensure peace and the stability of the Crown it was decided to make an immediate issue of Magna Carta – the first of several reissues during the reign of Henry and of his son Edward I. The exact content of each of these re-issues differed, but this great charter of royally granted liberties was on the way to becoming a lasting symbol of the subject’s rights versus the Crown. What was crucial in John’s Magna Carta, and remained true of all later reissues, was the king’s recognition that he was subject to the law, and this remains the case in England to this day.
At several points in British and world history the Magna Carta’s status as guarantor of rights against an overbearing ruler has proved invaluable. During the struggles between Charles I and Parliament, during the seventeenth century struggles to ensure the right to a fair trial, and during the struggles between the American colonists and the governments of George III which led to American independence, Magna Carta was frequently referred to in defence of rights which were being questioned by the Crown. In many of these cases, the particular rights granted in the Magna Carta of John in 1215 were almost irrelevant, since Magna Carta had become more than the sum of its parts – not a list of particular rights, but symbol and a promise.