Good evening, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. Tonight’s episode will feature a discussion on Magna Carta, the “Great Charter” that is known round the world as one of the greatest pieces of legislation in history. It is known today as one of the biggest influences on the creation of worldwide constitutional law and is the best known document restricting the rights of a monarch under legal binding. We’ll see what brought it about, who was involved, and whether or not it really had much of an effect on England.
Our timeframe for Magna Carta is the 13th century. During this time period, English monarchs were at one of their high points of power – a scary thought indeed when a man such as King John was crowned in 1199. John was king of all England and held vast tracts of land in Norman territory. His holding of supreme and unyielding authority led to the event causing him to become the English king popularly known for centuries after as the ruler whose power was cut out from under him by the nobles of his land.
One catalyst that brought about the need for this “Great Charter” was John’s control over the Church in England. Traditionally, the king appointed a candidate to be Archbishop of Canterbury, and the monks of Canterbury would approve said candidate. However, by the early 1200s, those same monks began to feel that they had no control over the process, and thus they elected their own candidate. John, enraged to find tradition thrown away and that he had been left out of the question altogether, appointed the Bishop of Norwich to the Canterbury seat. Norwich was sent to Rome for papal approval, but the reigning pope, Innocent III, rejected him, along with the man originally chosen by the Canterbury monks. Innocent instead used his influence to make the monks pick a man named Stephen Langton for the holy job. John, in a display of his power as king, exiled the Canterbury monks from his kingdom for not accepting his candidate and electing the man Innocent had proposed. In another move of retaliation, Pope Innocent III exercised the power of the Church by placing all of England under papal interdict – the prohibition of public worship – in 1208. Masses were not said; Holy Eucharist was not received; church bells fell silent, and the fates of souls across the island were unknown. In effect, Innocent did what he could to pull the Church’s blessing from England. The following year, Innocent excommunicated John, which more or less took him out of the running for acceptance into heaven (according to the Church’s laws barring excommunicants from receiving the Sacraments.). This was less a matter of spirituality than a declaration of England as an enemy of the Church – and in these times, being an enemy of the Roman Church, especially in Europe, was a very bad thing. Pope Innocent even gave Philip of France support to invade England in 1212.
Faced with these enormous punishments, John acquiesced to Innocent’s pressure and gave Stephen Langton the archbishopric of Canterbury. He also allowed the exiled monks to return. He even went so far as to give England and Ireland to the pope as papal territories and renting them for 1,000 marks per year. Here we see the dispute turn from a disagreement between king and Church to a feud between king and nobles – the English baronage was understandably infuriated at John’s actions. The lands they owned had become papal property and thus their power was greatly weakened. It is not hard to see the difficulties that were bound to arise from nobility being pitted against monarch.
Although John had more or less turned his realm over to Rome, the country could still operate without his leadership – the civil service put into place by Henry II took care of that. However, it costs money to run a kingdom. John had lost most of his Norman holdings in his messy ascent to the throne, and the loss of all that land led to a huge loss in tax revenue. John’s lost lands could not be reclaimed without raising an enormous amount of taxes, and tradition made it very difficult to increase the tax rate. John therefore introduced several radical (and ridiculous) laws that would raise the state’s income, including laws regarding the king’s forest that carried severe punishments for menial crimes. At that time in history, the feudal system included scutage – payment made to an overlord in lieu of military service. In the 2 score years or so before John’s coronation, the scutage had been raised eleven times. In John’s seventeen years as king, he raised it the same number of times himself. Furthermore, King John also brought about the first income tax to support the revenue lost to his military failures in Normandy.
By 1215, England’s nobility had had enough of this business. On June 10 of that year, many of the country’s barons stormed London, taking it by force. Five days later, they forced John to sign what they called the “Articles of the Barons” on the meadow at Runnymede. As an outward display of their so-called loyalty to John, those same barons reaffirmed their fealty to him on June 19. About a month later, on July 15, 1215, the royal chancery formally recorded the agreement, and Magna Carta was born. The most important part of Magna Carta, or at least the most important part as far as what it is known for, was clause 61, which formed a committee of 25 barons who had the power to overrule the decisions of the king. John was forced to swear obedience to this committee, should they decide to exercise their power and veto the actions of the king.
Interestingly enough, the Pope spoke out against Magna Carta. He issued an annulment against it, saying it was a “shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the king by violence and fear.” He gave his official blessing for John to openly disobey the new legislation. It is quite obvious that Innocent’s motives had little to do with John’s dignity; rather, the Pope was angered that the nobility would claim authority over the lands John had handed over to him.
Soon after signing the Great Charter, King John of England renounced its authority. This lead to the civil war now known as the First Baron’s War. The war carried on for over a year; it ended with John’s death on October 18, 1216. Upon his child son Henry’s accession to the throne, the war was ended, and King Henry III was the new lord in the country.
In a cunning move, Henry’s regents reissued Magna Carta a little less than a month after his coronation – albeit without its restrictive Clause 61, among other Clauses. Henry himself issued the Charter again in 1225, shortening it even further; his son, Edward I, reissued it one final time in 1297, confirming the version that Henry III had set down as authoritative. Thus, the Magna Carta that survives today does not have what the original document contained; rather, it is Edward’s 1297 edition that we call Magna Carta now.
The laws set down in Magna Carta were slowly but surely repealed in the centuries following that day at Runnymede, and very few of the statutes put forth by the document remain today. However, its influence can be seen in any modern legislation that upholds the rights of people against rulers – a fine example of this is the U.S. Constitution. It was an invaluable piece in the puzzle that gradually came together to form modern democracy, and without it the process would sure have taken decades, if not centuries, longer, and we may not be at the point of freedom we find ourselves at today.
And so there we have it. The actions of a power hungry and hot-tempered ruler brought into reign the laws set forth to prohibit a monarch from running amok with authority. Although John flagrantly disregarded Magna Carta, it was nevertheless a valuable link in the chain that connects the politics of the past with the system of today. We have Magna Carta to thank for setting into motion the many freedoms and liberties we experience every day.
I’d like to ask for a bit of feedback regarding this week’s episode. I have tried a few things to correct the volume problem, but I haven’t heard from anyone on whether or not they actually worked! If you have a few spare moments, drop me a line and let me know how British History 101 makes it into your ears. Another huge thank you to Dan in New Zealand for all his efforts!
Listeners of British History 101 know how much of a proponent I am for the podcasting community. Last week, we heard from Phillip Zannini on his new ‘cast, the Biography Podcast. It’s fresh, fun, and full of interesting information that makes me glad Philip started it. However, I’d like to remind everyone this week once again of the great podcast that started it all for me, Matt’s Today in History.
Thanks, Matt. If anyone listening now is like me, I know they look forward to seeing a new episode on their podcast list every day.
That’s it for this episode of British History 101. If you’d like to look back over our discussion of Magna Carta, I hope you can check out my blog at britishhistory101.blogspot.com for a transcript of this and every other episode. I’ve run into some trouble with the blog; for some reason, new posts aren’t appearing. I’m in contact with Blogger as we speak to try and rectify this issue. Please bear with me! Send suggestions, questions, comments, rants, and raves to BritishHistory101@gmail.com. Our music tonight is “O Maria, Prius Via,” performed by Joglaresa and available on Magnatune.com. Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit magnatune.com for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Thanks again to all of British History 101’s listeners. Until next week, my best to you all, and have a great night. I can’t wait to learn with you again.