On 15 June 1215, rebellious barons and King John met at Runnymede where the king reached an agreement and placed his royal seal on The Great Charter of 1215.
When examining the charter, the diplomatic conflict with the papacy and the baronial insurrections were major political precursors that highlighted John’s already tremendously weakened standing and led to the signing of The Great Charter. By agreeing to the barons’ terms, the charter put an end to the king’s unrestricted power of the government, blatant disregard for traditions and property ownership, and disrespect of economic rights and freedom to conduct business. The Great Charter sought to curb King John’s power and force him to govern based upon Henry I’s coronation charter, which had promised an abolishment of all the malicious customs by which the kingdom had been unjustly oppressed. Just as Henry I’s charter sought to right the wrongs of William II’s reigned, the baron’s sought to put an end to King John’s unjust methods of ruling the people. The Great Charter addressed several issues and put an end to unpopular practices, such as blatant violations of church rights and royal interference in electing bishops, enforcement of excessive taxation and unlimited feudal payments, and unfair trials that were subject to punishment by the king and/or imprisonment. Of the 63 clauses issued only one addressed the conflict between King John and the Church.
The first clause states that “the English church shall be free, and shall hold its rights entire and its liberties uninjured…that the freedom of election, which is considered to be most important and especially necessary to the English church…and obtained a confirmation of it by the lord pope Innocent III…” During his reign, King John tried to force the church to accept his candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury and power struggle between the king and pope erupted over this issue. With this first clause, the king released the church from secular control, something that Pope Innocent III wanted to achieve since the late 11th and 12th century. Innocent II supported the principle of free elections and the person elected had to be acceptable to him. In analyzing the remaining clauses, it is evident that each clause secured baronial rights, as well as protecting the rights of other groups within the kingdom. According to Hollister, the barons did not actively endeavor “to cripple the royal government but to influence it – to make it act in their interests and respect their customary right.” With the Magna Carta, they sought to secure their rights to inheritance, marriages, and ownership of land. Prior to the charter, King John often seized the estates and inheritances of families of deceased barons in order to acquire much needed funds, and seven sections of the charter addressed the issue of inheritance and estates.
The signing of the charter preserved the barons’ estates and prevented royal interference, thus ensuring that the king could never again seize estates leaving their wives and children destitute. In addressing their concerns for marriages, clauses seven and eight protected the rights of widowed noble women’s inheritances and allowed widows to remain unmarried and no longer forced to remarry. Finally, the charter protected property ownership. In the years before the charter, the king could take land from heirs as payments of debts. With the signing of the Great Charter, this act came to an end as it forced the king to pledge that he would no longer take lands as payments, except as a last resort.
In addition to the barons, the charter also protected, Jews, merchants, and the other free man. For the Jews, clauses nine, ten and eleven dealt with debts and debt owed to Jews, since Christians were forbidden to engage in moneylending, The clauses ensured that debtors paid their debts after an appropriate living expense was guaranteed, and suspended the amassing of interest in instances where the original debtor has passed away, but still transferred the debt to his children or the crown. With regards to English merchants, the barons suggested the enacting of a standard unit of measurements for things such as cloths and grains, as well as halting taxation that prevented merchants from moving freely in England and conducting business. The remaining clauses sought to protect the right of free men throughout the kingdom. With the Magna Carta, the barons presented the concept that “the king was limited by tradition and custom in his relations with free Englishmen of every class…” The most important clause that had an immediate and momentous impact for every free man was the thirty-ninth clause which stated, “no free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him or send upon him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” This clause ultimately led to the establishing of the writ of habeas corpus and asserts the principle that judgments should precede executions.
Hollister argues that the Great Charter “was a much fuller statement of right and privileges than the charter of Henry I.” One obvious difference between the two documents is their overall tone and their objectives. With the Charter of Liberties, Henry I was attempting to express a sense of reconciliation and desire to right his predecessor’s wrongful deeds, whereas The Great Charter stated, with a strong sense of authority, all the baronial grievances and directly stated the king’s misdeeds. Another difference between the two documents is that Henry I’s charter wished to affirmed that the nobility were no longer considered above the law, whereas the Magna Carta directly reminded King John of Henry I’s statement about the nobility’s place under the law, held him accountable for his actions, and would monitor whether or not the king obeyed the clauses presented in the charter.
Finally, there is also a striking contrast between the documents is the structure and flow of the documents. When analyzing Henry I’s Charter of Liberties, there is a natural progression in which the clauses are addressed, displaying a sense of thought that Henry wished to put into each of the issues, whereas The Great Charter has an irregular sequence, displaying a sense of urgency in which the charter was prepared. The Great Charter, under the sixty-first clause, established the means by which the barons would elect twenty-five members who would be given the responsibility to monitor and ensure that the king carried out the clauses stated in the charter, and the group of barons could use force against the king if he failed to honor his agreement to the barons and the freemen. Clause 61, also known as the Lawful Rebellion Clause, stated that the people, and not the king, held power, and if the people felt they were being governed in an unjust manner, they could petition to have the aggression corrected. If the aggressive act was not corrected, the people could enter into lawful rebellion against their aggressors until amends were made.
When analyzing Clause 61, it is clear to see that the measures introduced were not likely to work as the authors of the Great Charter demanded that King John authorize and institute armed opposition against himself. King John obviously viewed this clause, as well as the entire charter, as an illegitimate infringement of his authority, and thus reneged on the charter, with Pope Innocent III’s support.