We have come to think of Magna Carta as one of the great documents guaranteeing the rights of the people against the King. In reality it was the result of a bad King and some ambitious noblemen.
Magna Carta translates to the ‘Great Charter’ in Latin. It was signed by King John in 1215 at Runnymede near Windsor. It contains a series of promises made by the King to abide by certain rules when governing the Kingdom. The question was – why would an all-powerful King agree to a document which placed boundaries on his authority.
The routes lie in the traditional system under which England was governed known as Feudal law. In this, the King would agree to consult his Barons before raising taxes as they would be the people who would have to find the money. He would also tell them before going to war as their job was to provide the soldiers.
However, John did not abide by these laws and angered the barons by constantly asking for more money and raising taxes without telling them.
John’s Military Failures
Had his wars in France gone well, he might have got away with it, but they did not. By 1204 he had lost his lands in the north of France, which in turn limited the amount of money flowing into his coffers. Even worse he was excommunicated by the Pope in 1209 and had to accept the power of the Catholic Church to get it revoked.
Baron’s Rebellion 1214
In 1214, after another defeat in France, John asked his Barons for even more money. This time they were having none of it and rose up in rebellion. They forced him to sign the Magna Carta or Great Charter which forced John to abide by the principals of Feudal law. These had been guaranteed in another charter drawn up by Henry I, and it was hoped that if they could get John to sign a document, he might yet change his ways.
Deposing King John
John kept delaying the signing for as long as possible, but eventually relented in 1215. However, that was not the end of it. He went back on his word and had the Pope absolve the great Charter. This forced the Barons into war, and saw them invite Louis of France to take the throne if he helped to rid them of John.
Louis duly invaded and held the crown for almost a year until William Marshall defeated him and drove him back to France. By then, John was dead, and in his place the young King Henry III restored the principals of Magna Carta.
Although it was not the great democratic document it seems to have been it was incredibly important. It limited royal authority and paved the way for further limits and reforms in the future which really would bring power to the people.