Saturday, 1 November 2014

Magna Carta

Magna Carta - British Library
The travel section of The Age newspaper this morning (1 November 2014) contained an article about the British Library which holds two copies of the Magna Carta signed by King John in June 1215. Exhibitions and events are currently being planned to celebrate the eight hundred years since the signing of the original document.
King John
John of Angvin (King John) was born on 24 December 1167 and died 18 October 1216. John was the youngest child of Henry II and Eleanor d'Aquitaine. Articles written about the family of Henry and Eleanor suggest that the family, in today's parlance, was a good example of a dysfunctional family. There were constant family disputes as to who owned land in parts of France and in England and Henry had his wife imprisoned for a number of years. At one stage the brothers joined forces to rebel against their father (1173-1174).
Statue of Richard I - Palace of Westminster
In 1189 Henry II died and John's brother, Richard, became King of England. Shortly after becoming king, Richard set off with King Phillip of France on a journey to the Holy Land as part of the Third Crusade. Initially William Longchamp was appointed Chancellor of England while Richard was on crusade but in 1191 John took over the power of government. In 1192 Richard was captured, while retuning home and a ransom of 150,000 marks was demanded by Henry VI of Germany for Richard's release. Richard was once again free in February 1194, after partial payment of the ransom, and returned to England for a short time before leaving for France where he remained until his death on 6 April 1199.

In order for Richard and his knights and army to join the Third Crusade money needed to be raised to support such a venture. When a ransom was demanded for the return of Richard, additional taxes were extracted from the people of England to pay for the return of their king. When Richard returned to France after the Crusades money was required to maintain the army. After Richard's death John, and his army, were involved in battles to retain Normandy as an English possession. Normandy was lost to the English in 1204 as was also Anjou and Poitou. Aquitaine was now the only remaining English possession on the European continent.

John had many enemies in places of power especially among the barons and also in the Church. There were many objections but the additional taxes imposed for the continued battles with the French, especially as land in France previously belonging to England was being lost, caused unrest among the barons. John also had strained relationships with the Church particularly after he had opposed the election of Stephen Langton as the new Archbishop of Canterbury in 1208. By 1213 the rebel barons had met with the archbishop to put forward their grievances against John as king. When in 1214 John lost the Battle of Bouvines in northern France the unrest among many of the barons of England escalated. Early in 1215 John refused the demands of the barons so in retaliation a rebel group took over the City of London. This action forced John to negotiate with the barons and clergy and on 15 June 1215 they met at Runnymede where the Charter of Liberties was signed. No doubt a number of copies were made but four copies exist today.

The Magna Carta website prepared by the British Library provides detailed information about these documents and their significance.

The barons renewed their allegiance to the king but tensions remained and several months later the Pope, at John's request, annulled the document. The barons invited Louis, the son of the King of France, to be king and he invaded England in 1216. Several months later John died from dysentery on 18 October.

In November 1216 a revised version of the Magna Carta was produced and amended again in 1225 and in 1297. Most of the clauses in the original document have been repealed over time but versions of the 29th clause have formed the basis of constitutions of many democratic countries.

King John was no doubt a ruthless king with many failings but to some extent his actions need to be examined in context of his times. His brother, Richard, may have a better reputation than John but the reality is that Richard was only in England for a few months once he became king and was responsible for many of the financial problems faced by the English. It was left to John and his supporters to find the funds to pay for Richard's European expeditions and his ransom plus his battles in France. The story of Richard, however, was recorded by the chroniclers and later retold by Shakespeare and other story-tellers.  In stories such as Robin Hood Richard is portrayed as the good king, the champion of his people, while John is the bad king oppressing the people. However some historians, more recently, concede that John, despite his many faults, did work hard in trying to govern the country and lead the army. He also spoke English, unlike the previous kings since the Norman Conquest. Many of the criticisms of John's rule were written and circulated years after he died by his enemies.  Like Richard III (1452-1485), John was almost certainly not as bad as portrayed in popular literature and film. An article in BBC News Magazine 1 March 2011 provides some views on the interpretation of King John in history.

King John (good or bad) was my great (x24) grandfather.

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