As a 13th-century peace treaty, Magna Carta was a failure. Just 10 weeks after its creation, it was annulled by the Pope and the country was plunged into civil war. Yet this was by no means the end of the charter’s journey.
On 15 June 1215, King John (r. 1199–1216) agreed the document which became known to history as Magna Carta. In the short term it was a complete failure. It brought not peace but war. John had hoped the Charter would persuade the rebels to lay down their arms and go home. The Charter would then become no more than a vague symbol of good government. As for it actually being enforced, no way! John was soon disabused. The rebels did not disarm and sought to enforce the Charter to the letter and beyond. Within a month of Runnymede, John had seen enough. He asked the Pope to quash the Charter, and Pope Innocent III duly obliged in a papal bull dated 24 August 1215 (a prize exhibit in the British Library’s exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy).
Faced with John’s abandonment of the Charter, the rebels abandoned it too, and attempted a totally different solution. They deposed the king and offered the throne instead to Prince Louis (1187–1228), the eldest son of the King of France, Philip Augustus (1180–1223). When Louis landed in England in May 1216, he issued a proclamation which said nothing about the Charter. His promise of new monarchy, untainted with the oppression associated with John and his predecessors, was enough. Magna Carta now seemed a failure without a future.
What saved the Charter was John’s death in October 1216. He left his nine-year-old son, Henry III (r. 1216–72), in a terrible situation, for Louis was now controlling over half the country. The governors of Henry III thus took a momentous decision, one which shaped the future course of history. In order to tempt rebels back into Henry’s camp, they decided to accept what John had rejected and Louis had ignored. In November 1216, as almost their first act, they issued a new version of Magna Carta. Evidently they judged that the Charter, despite its abandonment, would have a great appeal. Their decision is readily explicable. In its short life the Charter had already sunk deep roots into the hearts and minds of the political community. In 1215 official versions had been distributed to the bishops. This is why, of the four surviving originals of the 1215 Charter, two remain in the possession of cathedrals – those of Lincoln and Salisbury – while a third (as recent research has shown) was held at Canterbury Cathedral before later finding its way into the collections of the British Library. Just as important, there was a wide distribution of unofficial versions of the Charter. These were probably derived from drafts produced during the negotiations at Runnymede. Evidently appetite for the Charter was great.
The issuing of a new version of the Charter by Henry III’s minority government in 1216 had its effect. In the decisive battle, fought at Lincoln on 20 May 1217, the English barons on Louis’ side simply surrendered. Not one was killed. When peace was finally declared later in the year, and Louis returned to France, the minority government redeemed its promises. In November 1217 they issued a second version of the Charter. For the first time it was now described as ‘Magna Carta’, Latin for ‘The Great Charter’. This was in order to distinguish it from a second charter, smaller in size, known as the Charter of the Forest, which was issued simultaneously to govern the running of the royal forest.
Magna Carta, however, was still insecure. In November 1217, Henry III was only ten years old, and he did not have his own seal. Instead, Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, although issued in the king’s name, had to be sealed by the papal legate, Guala Bicchieri (d. 1227), and the regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (d. 1219). There was also no denying the fact that Magna Carta had been forced on the king by a rebellion. Might not that provide grounds for him questioning its validity? In large measure, these doubts were laid to rest in 1225. In the February of that year Henry III issued his third version of Magna Carta, accompanied with a new version of the Forest Charter. Both were now authenticated with his seal which had been introduced in 1218. Even more, the text of Magna Carta made it absolutely clear that it was now a freely given grant of the king. Henry, the Charter thus proclaimed, was acting of his ‘spontaneous and free will’ in return for a great tax granted him by the kingdom. With all taint of coercion removed, the Church now gave the Charters its full support. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (1150–1228), issued a great sentence of excommunication against all those who contravened both Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest.
The Magna Carta of 1225 was the final and definitive version of the document. It is clauses from Henry III’s Charter of 1225, not John’s Charter of 1215, which are still on the Statute Book of the United Kingdom today. There are important differences between the Charter of 1215 and that of 1225, but their essence, in asserting the rule of law, and much of the detail, is the same. Without the Charter of 1215, there would have been no Charter of 1225.
After 1225, Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest were confirmed many times by both Henry III and his son, Edward I (r. 1272–1307). Henry’s confirmation in 1237 removed any final doubts about the validity of the Charters since he was now, as he said, of full age as he had not been in 1225. But while the king paid lip service to Magna Carta, did he obey it in practice? Did Magna Carta make a difference to the working of kingship? To that question contemporaries often gave a depressing answer. They pointed again and again to breaches in the Charter. In reality they were too pessimistic. Magna Carta did make a difference. In many ways it was a watershed between lawless and lawful rule. The Charter limited the financial exactions of the king and prevented the sale of justice. It greatly diminished the king’s ability to deprive his subjects of property in an arbitrary fashion and demand money to assuage his anger and recover his good will. In asserting that taxation needed the consent of national assemblies (soon to be called parliaments), and by increasing the need for such taxation by reducing other sources of income, Magna Carta helped lay the foundations for the tax-based parliamentary state.
Above all, by the end of the 13th century, Magna Carta was known from top to bottom of English society. The numerous confirmations, culminating in those of Edward I in 1297 and 1300, and their accompanying sentences of excommunication, had seen to that. In 1300 Magna Carta was proclaimed in English, the language of the great majority of the population. Around the same time the peasants of Bocking in Essex appealed to the Charter in their struggle against their lord’s bailiff. Magna Carta had established the base from which it would go round the world.