800 years after Magna Carta’s conception, historian Marc Morris investigates how a king known for centuries as a tyrant could have left us something so remarkably good.
Yesterday, 15th June 2015, you can hardly have failed to notice marked the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the document famously issued by King John at Runnymede in 1215. Most people are understandably a little hazy about the charter’s contents (it runs to 63 clauses and over 4,000 words). But they are aware that it was a “good thing” – a significant step in the direction of the liberties we enjoy today.
At the same time, most people think of John himself as a “bad king”, not least because he crops up as the villain in the tales of Robin Hood. One academic recently described him on Radio 4 as “an absolute rotter”; another, less constrained, has summed him up as “a s—”.
How was it, then, that the bad king left us something so remarkably good in Magna Carta? Is it the case, some historians have asked, that we have King John all wrong? That he was actually not as bad as legend makes out?
The answer to this is an emphatic “No!” John was one of the worst kings – arguably the worst king – ever to sit on England’s throne. “A very bad man,” in the words of one contemporary chronicler, “brim-full of evil qualities.” Despite occasional attempts to rehabilitate him, his reputation among academics remains extremely poor.
John’s offences are almost too numerous to list. In the first place, he was treacherous: when his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, was away on crusade, John attempted to seize the throne by plotting with the king of France, Philip Augustus, prompting contemporaries to damn him as “a mad-headed youth” and “nature’s enemy”. He was also lecherous: several nobles are reported to have taken up arms against him because he had forced himself on their wives and daughters.
Most of all, John was shockingly cruel. In a chivalrous age, when aristocrats spared their enemies, capturing them rather than killing them, John preferred to do away with people by grisly means. On one occasion, for example, he ordered 22 captive knights to be taken to Corfe Castle in Dorset and starved to death. Another time he starved to death the wife and son of his former friend, William de Briouze. In 1203 he arranged the murder of his own nephew and rival for power, Arthur of Brittany.
John might have got away with such nefarious acts had he not also been politically incompetent. At the start of his reign in 1199, he inherited the greatest dominion in Europe — not just England and large parts of Wales and Ireland, but also the whole western half of France: Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and Aquitaine. Yet within five years, he had lost almost all these continental territories to Philip Augustus. Contemporaries put this down to a lack of boldness on John’s part, calling him “Soft-sword”, and he did indeed lack the necessary martial skill that his brother Richard had possessed in spades. “No man may trust him,” sang the troubadour poet Bertran de Born, “for his heart is soft and cowardly.”
King John’s loss of his continental inheritance was deeply shameful, and he was determined to win it back. To raise the massive armies and fleets this enterprise would require, he wrung unprecedented sums of money from England. Taxes were suddenly demanded on an almost annual basis. Nobles were charged gargantuan sums to inherit their lands. Royal justices imposed exorbitant fines for trifling offences. The lands of the Church were seized, and the Jews were imprisoned and tortured until they agreed to pay up. John’s reign saw the greatest financial exploitation of England since the Norman Conquest.
But it was all for nothing. When the king finally launched his long-planned continental campaign in 1214, it was a disaster. John, true to form, shied away from battle when challenged by French forces, and his allies in the north were defeated in a decisive clash with Philip Augustus. He returned to England that autumn with his treasury empty and his dreams of re-conquest in tatters.
With their tyrannical ruler over a barrel, his subjects demanded reform. John dodged their demands for six months, until in May 1215 they came out in open rebellion and seized London. With his capital held against him, the king was forced to negotiate, and obliged to make concessions when he met his critics the following month at Runnymede.
Such is the general background that led to Magna Carta, a charge-sheet aimed squarely at King John and his many acts of misgovernment. The king did not issue it willingly, but under pressure from his opponents and in the hope of buying time. As soon as the meeting at Runnymede had broken up, John wrote to the pope complaining that the charter had been exacted under duress, and the pope obligingly declared it invalid. Within a few weeks both sides were again at war.
King John did not survive for much longer. Worn out by the exhaustion of fighting a losing war, he contracted dysentery in October 1216 and died a few days later at Newark Castle. Magna Carta, however, was unexpectedly resurrected, reissued by John’s supporters in the name of his nine-year-old son, the newly crowned Henry III. Its most contentious clauses, that allowed the barons to make war on the king should he transgress, were removed, but the bulk of the detail remained.
Today the detail is no longer relevant. What we now celebrate is the famous sentiment in the middle of the charter, which declares that a free man shall not be imprisoned, exiled, deprived of his property or otherwise destroyed simply because it is the king’s will. King John had indulged in precisely that sort of unjust behaviour, and his subjects had called him to account for it. This is how the “bad king” ended up leaving us something so good.
King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta, Marc Morris (Hutchinson) is out now.
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Magna Carta. The Great Charter of English liberties, first issued by King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. This document is one of the four surviving exemplifications.