Origins of the 1215 Magna Carta

John, by the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou

In 1199 King John inherited not only the British throne, but also extensive lands in Western France, acquired by his father Henry II through inheritance, war and circumstance, and defended during his reign by his brother Richard I against the King of France. During much of his reign John was at war with France, and by the time of his death in 1216 the French empire was substantially lost.

As a feudal king, John was landlord of his entire empire. The occupiers of the great rural estates, the barons, were tenants of the king, and held the land in return for allegiance to the crown. This entailed providing military support, and the payment of a complex system of taxes to secure favours and privileges: land, position, release from law or custom. The king’s taxes filtered down to others in rents, duties and fines.

King John exploited and abused the traditional sources of revenue. Desperate for money to wage wars in defence of his estates, John demanded unprecedented amounts in ‘scutage’, or money from his tenants in lieu of providing knights for the king’s service. He was intemperate and at times cruel in his manner of enforcing his rights from his land-holders and from the church, and unjust in his treatment of people at all levels. There was no redress against the absolute power of the king.

Barons who resisted paying the excessive levies had their lands confiscated and members of their families taken as hostages. By 1215 rebel barons outnumbered those loyal to John. They united and marched on London from the north and captured the Tower of London on 17 May 1215.

Weakened by a major defeat against the French at Bouvines in July 1214, and disagreements with the Pope, John agreed to negotiate, using Archbishop Stephen Langton as an intermediary. In drawing up a list of demands, the barons looked to earlier times, when kings granted ‘ancient liberties’ in the form of agreements to limitations of their arbitrary powers.

On a meadow at Runnymede, between the king’s court at Windsor and the barons’ camp at Staines, during a week in mid June of 1215, the barons and the king met and agreed to terms which were recorded as a charter of liberties, later known as Magna Carta. The barons pledged fealty to the king, and the king swore that he and his heirs would abide by the conditions of the Charter, ‘in all things and places forever’.

Tomb of King John

Tomb of King John. Photograph by Mr Christopher Guy, Cathedral Archaeologist. Reproduced by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).
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