The Importance and Signing of the MAGNA CARTA, 1215 CE The Magna Carta was signed in June 1215 between the barons (nobility) of England and King John in the town of Runnymeade, near Windsor Castle (where current-day royals live). “Magna Carta” is Latin for “Great Charter.” The document was a series of written promises between the king and his subjects that he, the king, would govern England and deal with its people according to the customs of feudal law. Magna Carta was an attempt by the barons to stop a king—in this case, John—from abusing power and making the people of England suffer.
Why would a king, who was meant to be all-powerful in his own country, agree to the demands of the barons who were meant to be below him in authority? England had for some years owned land in France. The barons had provided the king with both money and men to defend this territory. Traditionally, the king had always consulted with the barons before raising taxes (as they had to collect it) and demanding more men for military service (as they had to provide the men). This was all part of the feudal system. When kings were militarily successful abroad, relations between the kings and the barons were good. John was not successful in his military campaigns abroad. His constant demands for more money and men angered the barons. By 1204, John had lost his land in northern France. In response to this, John introduced high taxes without asking the barons. This was against law and custom.
John made mistakes in other areas as well. He angered the Roman Catholic Church. The pope, angered by John’s behavior, banned all church services in England in 1207, and excommunicated John in 1209. Religion, and the fear of Hell, were very important to the people, including the barons. The Catholic Church taught that people could only get to Heaven if the Church believed that they were good enough to get there. How could they show their goodness and love of God if the churches were shut? Faced with this, John climbed down and accepted the power of the Church, giving his people many privileges once more in 1214.
In that same year, he suffered military defeat in an attempt to get back his territory in France. He returned to London demanding more money for taxes. This time, the barons were not willing to listen and rebelled against his power, capturing the city. However, they did not defeat John entirely, and by 1215, both sides were willing to discuss matters. The result was the Magna Carta. The 1215 document contained a large section which is now called clause 61 (the original document was not divided into clauses). This section established a committee of 25 barons who could at any time meet and overrule the will of the King if he defied the rules of the Charter, seizing his castles and possessions. Clause 61 was a serious challenge to John’s power as a ruling monarch and he renounced it as soon as the barons left London. Pope Innocent III rejected any call for restraints on the King, saying it impaired “John’s dignity.” He saw it as an affront to the Church’s authority over the King and the “papal territories” of England and Ireland, and he released John from his oath to obey it. The rebels knew that King John could never be restrained by the Magna Carta and so they sought a new king. As a means of preventing war, the Magna Carta was a failure, rejected by the barons and was legally valid for no more than three months. It was the death of King John in 1216 which secured the future of the Magna Carta for the basis of a new, representative government, Parliament.
1. What town was the Magna Carta signed in? What year?
2. The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was a series of written promises declaring what?
3. What did the barons provide the king with as part of the feudal contract? How was this relationship broken by John?
4. Why did the Pope stop religious services to England? Why was this especially angering to the barons and the English people?
5. What was the importance of Clause 61?
6. Although the Magna Carta failed at first, what did it later help set up in England’s government?