The Origins of Magna Carta

Professor David Carpenter and Professor Nicholas Vincent discuss the reign of King John, the grievances of the barons and the circumstances in which Magna Carta was created in 1215.

Exploring the medieval context in which the historic agreement at Runnymede was created, examining King John’s Plantagenet heritage, his loss of French territory and his relationship with the Church and the barons.

By Dr. Nicholas Vincent / 03.12.2015
Professor of Medieval History
University of East Anglia

Magna Carta was a response to an entire tradition of royal government, not merely to the tyranny of one particular king.

The Plantagenets

King John (r. 1199–1216) was the third member of his family to have ruled England, in succession to his father King Henry II. The Plantagenets[1] had married into the Norman dynasty that had ruled England since 1066. Successful in war and immensely ambitious, Henry II (r. 1154–89) carved out an empire for himself on either side of the Channel. From his mother he inherited a claim to the throne of England, made good in 1154 on the death of the usurping King Stephen. In France, by inheritance and by marriage to the great heiress, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry came to rule over a vast collection of lands stretching from the Channel as far south as the Pyrenees. To this he added conquests in Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.



The ancestry of King John: A genealogical roll of the English kings depicting the family history of the Angevin dynasty, including King John and Henry III (c. 1300 – 07). / British Library, Public Domain

Success on this scale inevitably brought the Plantagenets into conflict with the Capetian dynasty ruling in Paris. To pay for conquests and Anglo-French wars, England itself was heavily taxed. King John’s elder brother, King Richard I (‘the Lionheart’) (r. 1189–99) squandered vast resources, first on crusade in the Holy Land, then on the ransom required to buy him out of captivity in Germany. When Richard died in 1199, with no legitimate son to succeed him, the throne was disputed. John won out, at the expense of his 15 year-old nephew, Arthur of Brittany. When Arthur rebelled, John took him captive. In prison, Arthur simply disappeared. The general assumption was that John had murdered him, either with his own hands, or using an assassin.

Murder of Prince Arthur in Chronicle of Margam Abbey: Rumours circulated that Prince Arthur had been killed by King John. This near-contemporary chronicle describes John attacking Arthur in a drunken rage and throwing his body into the river Seine. / Trinity College Library, Cambridge University

This 18th century engraving depicts Arthur on his knees begging for his life. / Trustees of the British Museum

King John’s loss of French territory

Rebellion itself was nothing new. On several occasions under the Norman kings, barons and churchmen who considered the king tyrannical or excessive in his demands for tax rose up to demand redress. This had most recently occurred in a great rebel coalition of 1173–74 against King Henry II (r. 1154-89). The problem here was that Henry’s resources vastly outweighed those of his opponents. Consequently the rebellion of 1173-74 had resulted not in baronial victory but in a further leap forwards for royal power, the placing of Scotland under English control, and the claim by the King to extend his laws and taxes to yet further territory.

The disappearance of Arthur of Brittany changed all this. Tired of their lands being treated as a war zone, the barons of western France now rebelled against John, demanding justice. The French King, Philip Augustus (r. 1180–1223), posed as leader of their movement. John refused to attend trial at the French royal court. In consequence, Philip declared that John had forfeited all title to his lands in France. As far south as the Loire, the Plantagenet empire collapsed. Henceforth, the Capetians ruled in Normandy. John himself slunk back to England, his reputation in tatters. For the rest of his life, the determination to reconquer his lost lands was to poison relations between king and English barons. Faced with rising demands for tax, the barons grew increasingly disenchanted with their king.


The French conquest of Normandy in Grandes Chroniques de France: By 1204, John had lost the French territories he had inherited with the throne of England. / British Library, Public Domain

‘Bad’ King John?

John was an unsuccessful king, but whether he was truly ‘evil’ remains more difficult to determine. Contemporaries accused him of murder, extortion and lechery. Some of these charges were true. Others became exaggerated in hindsight, when chroniclers came to look back on a reign that had so clearly ended in rebellion and civil war. Since God alone was believed to judge the outcome of battles, and since John was defeated in war, to contemporaries it was easy to assume that John was indeed a sinner abandoned by God. John lost not only his wars with Philip Augustus but his wider war of propaganda. The chroniclers upon whom we rely for our knowledge of events were all either clerks or monks. After 1205, John caused a breach between royal government and the Church that itself inevitably placed the chroniclers, which is to say the chief recorders of public opinion, in opposition to the King.


This famous image shows King John hunting on horseback in the forest. / British Library, Public Domain

Portrait of King John from Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum: This benign portrait of King John featuring in Matthew Paris’s renowned chronicle of English history contrasts sharply with the hostile treatment John receives in the text of the work. / British Library, Public Domain

John’s relationship with the Church

The Plantagenets had never enjoyed a good reputation with the Church. Henry II had been widely blamed for the death of Thomas Becket, declared a saint after his murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Henry and his sons had taxed the clergy, and had imposed their own courtiers as bishops. In 1205, John attempted to follow this tradition, demanding the promotion of a royal favourite as archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope, Innocent III (1161-1216), refused. Pressured by the Pope, the monks of Canterbury elected a man named Stephen Langton (1150-1228). Langton was an Englishmen, but had spent the past 30 years living and teaching in Paris. There he had used the good and bad kings of the Bible as models with which to criticize modern kingship. Kings, he argued, should obey written law. They should tax their subjects only in the case of dire necessity. They should rule for the public good, not for their own selfish glory.

This manuscript contains the first known miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, depicting the Archbishop struck down while at prayer in Canterbury Cathedral. / British Library, Public Domain

Reliquary depicting St Thomas Becket’s martyrdom: The exterior of this casket is decorated with images of Thomas Becket’s murder, while the interior contained relics associated with the saint. Across Europe, a fascination with Becket’s murder was reflected in the steady trade in relics and representations of his death. / © Trustees of the British Museum


The seal of Stephen Langton’s contains on its reverse a depiction of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. / British Library, Public Domain

None of this was acceptable to King John, who refused to allow Langton to take up office in England. The Pope replied with a sentence of ‘Interdict’, not just excommunicating the King and his court, but in effect suspending the operations of the English Church. For six years, from 1209 to 1214, the faithful were denied the sacraments and the dead were refused Christian burial. The King replied with even heavier taxation against both the Church and the English barons. Rumours of conspiracy began to mount. Langton sought refuge in France, as did various English barons persecuted or accused of treason by King John. A new consensus was forged between baronial and clerical opposition.

Chronicon Anglicanum: This manuscript includes a rare contemporary account of the papal Interdict of 1208. The original account had been removed and a replacement inserted, perhaps to avoid offending King John. / British Library, Public Domain

To fend off the threat of a French invasion, and to fulfil his plans for reconquest in Normandy, in 1213 John made his peace with the Pope. In what was intended as a diplomatic master-stroke, he placed himself and his realm under direct papal overlordship. Henceforth, the Pope would be obliged to protect England against any threat of a French invasion. Langton was allowed to return from exile. But the King’s wars in France were unsuccessful. An expedition was dispatched, paid for with the heavy taxes of the past 10 years. John himself campaigned in southern France, his allies in the north. In late June 1214, John was defeated on the Loire. A month later, on 27 July, John’s northern allies were annihilated at the Battle of Bouvines. Broken and humiliated, John was once again obliged to slink home to England.

Bull of Innocent III taking England under his protection: Fearing a French invasion of England with papal support in 1213, King John made peace with the Church by letting the Pope become England’s feudal overlord. In return he secured the Pope’s support, which became crucial in 1215 when the Pope agreed to annul Magna Carta. / British Library, Public Domain

Precedents for Magna Carta

In his absence, many barons had refused to pay the special tax (called ‘scutage’) intended to pay for war in France. Some had begun openly to demand reform. Keen to protect the privileges of the Church, Archbishop Langton sought to broker a settlement. According to the chroniclers, it was Langton who now produced the coronation charter of Henry I (r.1100-35) as a model of the sort of reforms to which King John should be bound. In 1100, King Henry I of England had been obliged to agree a series of written promises, to limit his financial demands, to restore the good laws and customs of the English past, and to respect the liberties both of his barons and the Church.

Henry I’s Coronation Charter was known to King John’s barons, and influenced the negotiations at Runnymede in 1215. / © Lambeth Palace Library

The text of this coronation charter had survived, even though few of its promises had been kept. Elsewhere in Europe, rulers had issued similar charters, promising liberties to their subjects and a return to the good laws of the past. In 1212, for example, Simon de Montfort (1208-65), leading a campaign of conquest in southern France, had issued a long charter of liberties, known as the Statute of Pamiers, promising to uphold the privileges of the Church, to impose only reasonable taxation and to do justice freely and without demanding payment. This was a settlement almost certainly known to Langton, whose own brother fought in de Montfort’s army.

The Statute of Pamiers was issued in December 1212. Many of its clauses deal with problems also addressed by the English Magna Carta. It was almost certainly known in England. / © Archives Nationales (France)

The road to Runnymede

So it was that the English opposition in 1214 first began to demand a charter from King John as a guarantee of future good government. The precise terms here took many months of discussion. Drafts circulated, and one of them, known as the Unknown Charter, preserved today in the national archives of France, takes the form of a copy of Henry I’s coronation charter followed by a series of clauses to which King John is said to have agreed. The very first of these clauses, undertaking that the King ‘will arrest no man without judgment nor accept any payment for justice nor commit any unjust act’, later made up one of the central demands enshrined in Magna Carta.

The ‘Unknown’ Charter begins as a copy of Henry I’s Coronation Charter. It then lists a series of additional clauses, beginning with the statement, ‘King John concedes that he will arrest no man without judgment nor accept any payment for justice nor commit any unjust act.’ / © Archives Nationales (France)

By January 1215, the English barons were openly united against the King. Many of their chief spokesmen came from the north of England, a region particularly resentful of royal interference. As a result, the opposition became known collectively as ‘The Northerners’, even though only a proportion of its fighting strength came from the north. In early May, with the King still seeking delay, the barons declared war. Renouncing their allegiance to John, they seized the city of London. From this point onwards, the King had little choice but to negotiate. London was not only essential to royal government, but with London in rebel hands there was a real threat the rebels might depose the King and place a French pretender on his throne.


The concessions made by John to his barons were outlined in a document known as the ‘Articles of the Barons’, to which the King’s great seal was attached. Meanwhile the royal chancery produced a formal royal grant, based on the agreements reached at Runnymede, which became known as Magna Carta. / British Library, Public Domain

So it was that barons and king converged upon Runnymede, mid-way between London and the King’s castle at Windsor. Here, following several days of negotiation, written terms were agreed and sealed with the King’s seal. We know this document as the ‘Articles of the Barons’ because it remained merely a draft, setting out a series of clauses, but as yet not issued in the King’s own name. It survives, almost miraculously, preserved by Archbishop Langton in his archive at Lambeth Palace, London, and thence, after various adventures, gifted to the British Museum in 1769. It was this document that, by 15 June 1215, was rewritten into the great charter of liberties known as Magna Carta.


  1. The Plantagenets took their name from the ‘broom plant’ (in French, the plante de genêt), which was supposedly used as an emblem by John’s grandfather, Geoffrey count of Anjou. According to a legend that they themselves encouraged, they were ultimately descended from a she-demon, Mélusine: the devil’s brood.

Originally published by the British Library under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.



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