“Take away justice” proclaimed St Augustine, “and what are kingdoms but acts of robbery?”
It is fairly safe to say that had the saint been alive in England at the beginning of the thirteenth century he would have been assured of the truth of his pronouncement by every man in the country but one.
The Norman Conquest, a hundred and fifty years away in the past, had sunk into history, and though great developments in the realm of government had taken place in the intervening years (developments which by degrees had made justice available in theory to all but the most under-privileged), the last year of the old century had placed on the throne of England a man who, before the first decade of the new century had run its course, bade fair to undo all the good that had been done.
He was a tough, sallow, moody, energetic little man of five feet five inches. Born late in his parents’ lives, he was spoilt by both in childhood; they quarrelled over him, but found common ground in their doting on their precocious child.
He lacked the two essential qualities of a good ruler, self-discipline and balance. Unable to control himself, he was equally unable to discipline others. Unpredictable and ever changing in mood, no one could be sure how he would act from one hour to the next, and most therefore shied away from him.
He suffered, too, from a tremendous chip on his shoulder. Before he was born, his father, not expecting to have yet another son had divided up his not inconsiderable empire among his five older sons. There was nothing left for the sixth and youngest son, whom the father sometimes called Jehan sans terre, John Lackland.
The fact that, compared with his brothers, he possessed nothing, made him suspicious and greedy, and even after he attained the throne of England, John could not rid himself of the conviction that everyone was plotting to defraud him. He found it difficult to trust almost any man and to compensate he seemed deliberately to make opportunities for cheating all who came near him, and grabbing everything that came within his reach.
But for all these unpleasant traits of character, from early boyhood he displayed great charm. Far from being an asset this very charm proved to be one of his greatest liabilities, for neither his parents nor his generous elder brother, Richard I, could bring themselves to discipline him when he committed some of his worse lapses.
He was indeed a conglomeration of paradoxes. Suspicious, greedy, grasping, charming, genial, sensual, self-indulgent, open-handed, mean, the victim of mad rages which so contorted his body that while they lasted he was unrecognizable, he grew up completely without morals or any sense of responsibility. And yet there were times when he demonstrated that he possessed administrative abilities of the highest order, while his knowledge of the law made him one of the leading justiciars in the kingdom.
The reign of such a king could not avoid being fraught with troubles and difficulties, and almost from the start it became only too evident that the country was in for sad, disturbing and disturbed times.
Within three years of succeeding Richard in 1199, John had managed to lose two-thirds of his empire in France. By the end of three years more he had nothing left of his father’s great overseas possessions but the Channel Islands, a portion of Poitou, and the province of Aquitaine which had come to him from his mother. And all because he made mistake after mistake in dealing with the wily and determined King Philip Augustus of France whose one ambition was to chase the English out of France and unite the whole country under his crown.
Having lost the war in France, John then chose to pick a quarrel with one of the most powerful men in Europe and one of the most able statesmen to sit in the Chair of St Peter, Pope Innocent III. It began with the election of a successor to his old tutor, Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury. Anticipating the nomination of a royal candidate, some young monks of Canterbury elected one of their own number, and sent him to Rome to seek the Pope’s approval. In the meantime, the Chapter of Canterbury, frightened of incurring the terrible royal displeasure, elected John’s nominee, the Bishop of Norwich.
The Pope, on being requested by the Chapter to grant his approval, refused to give it, and declared both elections void. He also directed the monks of Canterbury to send delegates to Rome with powers to nominate and elect a new candidate. The monks obeyed, and as a result one of the greatest theologians of the day, Cardinal Stephen Langton, a Canon of York, then living in Rome, was elected Archbishop of Canterbury.
When news of the election reached him, John flew into one of his terrible rages. He sent his soldiers to Canterbury and drove the monks out of the kingdom. He would not accept as Archbishop a man of whom he knew nothing; but not only that, he claimed that one of his most sacred prerogatives had been taken from him. While he agreed that the Pope might refuse to approve a man whom he had nominated, the Pontiff had no right to require the monks of Canterbury to elect a candidate whom the Pope himself had put forward. He refused to allow Langton to take up his appointment.
For a year the Pope tried to argue with John, but at the end of that time, having made no progress, he excommunicated the king. The effect of this excommunication, which John himself appeared to ignore, was that nearly all the churches were closed, scarcely any services were held, and as a contemporary chronicler put it, “God and his angels slept.”
For five years this state of affairs lasted, and one of its consequences was that John made enemies of his own barons. By his actions he lost the confidence of almost all the great nobles, and attracted the bitter hatred of many.
His attitude and his actions towards his barons sprang from two causes. First, he blamed the barons for his losing the war with France, accusing them of reluctance to come to his aid when he was in dire need. Second, he was determined to increase the already tremendous power of the Crown. To this end, he embarked upon a course of doing all he could to weaken the financial position of the nobility. He mulcted them of as much wealth as he dare, and he was greatly daring, by imposing taxes, fines and confiscations, under which he seized gold and silver, jewels and precious stuffs, which he intended to hoard against the day when he would once more join battle with the King of France.
His two chief weapons in this campaign of despoilment were the levy called scutage and what were called “aids” demanded from the tenants-in-chief. Scutage is derived from the Latin word for a shield, and it was used to describe the sum of money which Henry I had allowed his barons to pay instead of providing the king with soldiers. The money so raised was originally intended to pay mercenaries to fight the king’s battles for him. Aids were requests made only under very special circumstances and John’s predecessors had called for them only in times of great emergency.
But besides scutage and aids, John also imposed two levies on the capital value of all personal and movable goods owned not only by the barons but by the merchants and burgesses.
Nor was this the total of his fortune-grabbing activities. When any of his tenants died without heirs and the estates came into his custody, by special taxes he stripped them of almost all their value; and there were other equally outrageous and unlawful impositions.
To administer his tax-gathering he employed mercenary captains as sheriffs and gave them judicial powers to enable them to extort money by whatever means they could devise. False accusations were made and fines imposed, writs were sold at exorbitant rates, and without regard to the nature of an offence the most crushing money penalties were exacted.
If God and His angels slept, justice was not only blind but had fallen into a deep trance. By the end of five years, not only had John amassed an immense fortune from the coffers of nobles and merchants, but had succeeded in denying justice to all. If a tax or a fine were imposed and the unfortunate man could not pay, he was cast into prison where he might be detained during the King’s Pleasure; and if the king’s or sheriff’s displeasure alighted on any man, he might be cast into prison without trial, and there be kept without any opportunity to defend himself.
These attacks by the king on purses, liberty and lives intimidated those very men and women on whose loyalty his throne depended; and it is one of the strangest features of these times that the great barons allowed themselves to be so mistreated for so long. “There was not one who did not obey the rod of the king,” an historian of the times tells us, but at the same time gives no clue as to why they suffered these royal assaults so passively.
There is little doubt, however, that the interdict under which the Pope had laid the king and country was in a large part responsible. It is difficult for us in an England of four hundred years of Protestant tradition to appreciate the reactions that being a spiritually outcast-nation led by an outcast king could have on minds which placed so much store on the triumph of Christendom that lives and fortunes were joyfully hazarded and hardships so readily undertaken to protect the Holy Places a thousand miles away.
In those days rough, lusty licentious men felt a genuine need for the consolations of religion and a Church. Never before in the memory of man had men been deprived of these consolations, and the first effect was a kind of numbness which more and more sapped the moral strength. But gradually the anaesthetic shock began to wear off, and realization of their plight became more real as it penetrated more into the consciousness.
The strain began to tell, not only on the people but on the mind of the king himself. He began to be afraid of what his people were thinking, and when in 1212 he gathered his armies to make an assault on the Welsh princes and learned that the barons were plotting to kill him, his nerve suddenly snapped. He dismissed the armies, and though he seized a hermit, Peter of Wakefield, who was going about proclaiming that the king would be dead by Ascension Day, he was too late to stop the story from spreading throughout the length and breadth of the country.
In the following year the Pope declared the throne of England forfeit, and the King of France appointed himself the Pope’s champion and assembled a fleet at Boulogne to carry an army to seize England. Though the barons and people would even now have responded to a call to keep the foreigners at bay, John feared what would happen if he brought the barons together, and seeing that there was only one way out he took it.
He suddenly declared himself penitent and ready to obey the Pope’s commands in all things. Thus he removed the threat of a French invasion. But this very threat had rallied the barons, and though it might no longer exist, their determination to put right the enormous injustices of the past decade and to put an end to tyrannical rule did not slacken. The lead was given by the barons of the north. Summoned to Portsmouth to join in an expedition to crush the rising power of France, they refused to obey. John crossed the Channel with what forces he could muster, and when in the following year he demanded scutage for the support of these forces, once more the northern barons refused his demand.
Heartened by this example, in the next year, on John’s return from France yet again a defeated king, his mercenary army dispersed, the eastern barons, seeing in John’s present weakness an opportunity not to be missed, joined cause with the northern barons. Under the guise of a pilgrimage, northern and eastern barons met at Bury St Edmunds, and there took an oath that they would withdraw their allegiance from the king unless he restored to them their “ancient and accustomed liberties”.
Deprived of any means to resist them physically, John still refused to listen to their arguments, demands and threats, when through Langton, now installed as Archbishop of Canterbury, his advisers made every attempt to persuade him. But the barons’ determination intensified, and in the spring of 1215 the northern and eastern lords joined forces near Stamford on the Great North Road, and marched on London where the mayor and citizens were waiting to open the gates to them.
John was at Windsor, and hearing that the barons of the southwest were on their way to join the coalition of the north and east, which left him entirely alone, he agreed to meet the barons in a meadow beside the Thames called Runnymede.
The meeting took place on 15 June, 1215, and there John was presented with a document which the barons had drawn up with the advice and approval of Langton, who had acted for the king in the negotiations.
In the circumstances, and taking into account all that they had suffered for so many years, the demands set out in the document were not excessive, but were, in fact, eminently reasonable and just. They did not aim at making revolutionary changes, but laid down the recognized and fundamental principles for the government of the realm in accordance with old-established law and custom.
The document claimed that neither in the Crown nor anywhere else did there lie any power or right to override the laws and customs or to change them without the common consent; and it asserted the right to resist in arms any attempt made to override or change them, even if the attempt was made by the king.
Having established this, it laid down certain basic principles of justice which were to be accorded to every man and woman in the realm. No man might be punished without a fair trial; punishment must be proportionate to the offence; and justice might not be denied or delayed, nor sold to any man. It reaffirmed certain feudal rights of lords over their vassals, and it claimed that demands beyond these rights might not be made without the sanction of the Great Council of the Realm, duly summoned according to recognized form. This clause became the basis of the doctrine that the Crown cannot impose additional taxation without the assent of Parliament.
In no position to refuse, John reluctantly gave his approval to the Magna Carta. Immediately copies were made and sent to all the sheriffs, who proclaimed it in the courts of every county, hundred, city, borough and market-town, so that all men should know what their rights were. Unhappily a section of the barons by their tactlessness and arrogance provoked John to attempt an early revenge. He plotted to reduce them to impotence and they resisted. At first the king was successful, but summoning the hated French to their aid, the barons fought back. As the war was reaching its climax, John caught dysentery, and during the night of 18 October, 1216, he died aged forty-eight.
Intended to restore their ancient liberties to a people which had suffered personally at the hands of a tyrant king who still sat on the throne, the Magna Carta in effect went much much further than that. It did restore the liberties, and those who had drawn it up had done their best to make certain that so long as the nation survived, those liberties could never again be put in peril. By it John declared: “We grant to all the freemen of our realm, from us and our heirs for ever all the under mentioned liberties to have and to hold for them as our heirs from us and their heirs.”
But it also established two extremely significant precedents. First, though government was exercised by the king it was to be based on the law and rooted in justice, or it was not to be accepted at all. The second was that which denied the king the right to impose taxes without the consent of the Great Council.
For seven and a half centuries now the rights and privileges laid down in Magna Carta have been firmly defended by the people of Britain, and they have become recognized the world over as the basis of democratic liberty.