Dan Jones Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty

ISBN 13: 9780525428299

Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty

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9780525428299: Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty

"Dan Jones has an enviable gift for telling a dramatic story while at the same time inviting us to consider serious topics like liberty and the seeds of representative government." —Antonia Fraser

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Plantagenets, a lively, action-packed history of how the Magna Carta came to beby the author of The Templars

 
The Magna Carta is revered around the world as the founding document of Western liberty. Its principles—even its language—can be found in our Bill of Rights and in the Constitution. But what was this strange document and how did it gain such legendary status?

Dan Jones takes us back to the turbulent year of 1215, when, beset by foreign crises and cornered by a growing domestic rebellion, King John reluctantly agreed to fix his seal to a document that would change the course of history. At the time of its creation the Magna Carta was just a peace treaty drafted by a group of rebel barons who were tired of the king's high taxes, arbitrary justice, and endless foreign wars. The fragile peace it established would last only two months, but its principles have reverberated over the centuries. 

Jones's riveting narrative follows the story of the Magna Carta's creation, its failure, and the war that subsequently engulfed England, and charts the high points in its unexpected afterlife. Reissued by King John's successors it protected the Church, banned unlawful imprisonment, and set limits to the exercise of royal power. It established the principle that taxation must be tied to representation and paved the way for the creation of Parliament. 

In 1776 American patriots, inspired by that long-ago defiance, dared to pick up arms against another English king and to demand even more far-reaching rights. We think of the Declaration of Independence as our founding document but those who drafted it had their eye on the Magna Carta.

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About the Author:

Dan Jones is the author of The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queen Who Made England, a #1 international bestseller and New York Times bestseller, and Wars of the Roses, which charts the story of the fall of the Plantagenet dynasty and the improbable rise of the Tudors. He writes and presents the popular Netflix series Secrets of Great British Castles and appeared alongside George R.R. Martin in the official HBO film exploring the real history behind Game of Thrones. He was closely involved in the British Library’s landmark unification of the four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta to mark the charter’s eight hundredth anniversary. He is also the author of Summer of Blood: England’s First Revolution and is currently working on a history of the Knights Templar due out in September 2017.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

 

Eight hundred years after it was first granted beneath the trees of Runnymede, by the fertile green banks of the river Thames, the Magna Carta is more famous than ever. This is strange. In its surviving forms—there are four known original charters dating from June 1215—the Magna Carta is something of a muddle, a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant king, most of which concern matters of arcane thirteenth-century legal principle. A few of these promises concern themselves with high ideals, but they are few and far between, vague and idealistic statements slipped between longer and more perplexing sentences describing the “customary fee” that a baron ought to pay a king on the occasion of coming into an inheritance, or the protocols for dealing with debt to the Crown, or the regulation of fish traps along the rivers Thames and Medway.

For the most part the Magna Carta is dry, technical, difficult to decipher, and constitutionally obsolete. Those parts that are still frequently quoted—clauses about the right to justice before one’s peers, the freedom from being unlawfully imprisoned, and the freedom of the Church—did not mean in 1215 what we often wish they would mean today. They are part of a document drawn up not to defend in perpetuity the interests of national citizens but rather to pin down a king who had been greatly vexing a small number of his wealthy and violent subjects. The Magna Carta ought to be dead, defunct, and of interest only to serious scholars of the thirteenth century.

Yet it is very much alive, one of the most hallowed documents in the constitutions of numerous countries, and admired as a foundation stone in the Western traditions of liberty, democracy, and the rule of law. How did that happen?

The Magna Carta was a peace treaty born of a serious collapse in relations between King John and his barons. The reasons for that collapse will be discussed in this book, but the basic thrust of events was simple. A large party of John's barons, with the assistance of church-men guided by the impressive archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, demanded that the king confirm in writing (and certify with his Great Seal) a long list of rights and royal obligations that they felt he and his predecessors had neglected, ignored, and abused for too long. These rights and obligations were conceived in part as a return to some semi imaginary "ancient" law code that had governed a better, older England, which lay in the historical memory somewhere between the days of the last Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, and the more recent times of John's great grandfather, Henry I.

The Magna Carta touched on matters of religion, tax, justice, military service, feudal payments, weights and measures, trading privileges, and urban government. Occasionally it reached for grand principle: Famously, John was forced to promise that "no free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land" and no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice." But for the most part what was at issue in 1215 was a tight-knit, technical, and often quite dull shopping list of feudal demands that was mainly of interest to (and in the interests of) a tiny handful of England's richest and most powerful men. The Magna Carta's terms applied only to "free men," who were then at best 10 percent or 20 percent of England’s adult population.

The main novelty of the Magna Carta, often overlooked, was the fact that it proposed a neat but flawed mechanism for ensuring that the king stuck to what he had promised to do. If John reneged on the charter, his barons would renounce their personal loyalty to the king, on which the whole feudal structure of society depended, and start a war. This grave threat was reflected in the words of the charter itself, in which John acknowledged that if he failed to keep the promises he had made, then his barons could “distrain and distress [him] in all ways possible, by taking castles, lands, possessions . . . saving our person and the persons of our queen and children.”1

And that is precisely what happened. On Monday, June 15, 1215, John’s barons compelled him to grant them a charter of rights and privileges, but the king began to wriggle out from beneath its terms almost as soon as the sealing wax was set. The original Magna Carta was legally valid for only a little over two months, whereupon it was declared “shameful and demeaning . . . illegal and unjust” by the pope, who de- creed that any man who observed the charter would “incur the anger of Almighty God and of St Peter and St Paul His apostles”: a polite way of saying that they would burn in the fires of Hell for all eternity.2 This provoked full-blown civil war in which towns and castles were besieged, men were slaughtered, the royal treasure was (infamously) lost in boggy ground near the large river estuary in eastern England called the Wash, and the French king’s heir was invited to England to replace John. The war was ended not by a chastened King John’s agreeing to reaffirm the principles of the Magna Carta but rather by his death from dysentery during the night of October 18, 1216, after which his enemies rapidly began to lose their appetite for the fight. Little at the time would have led anyone to believe that the charter agreed at Runnymede in June of 1215 was anything more than a brave but flawed attempt to restrain an unpopular and overbearing king, which had failed in the most emphatic circumstances imaginable.

And yet. In the eight hundred years that have passed since that fateful day of June 15, 2015, when the Magna Carta was granted by King John in prato quod vacatur Ronimed-"in the meadow that is called Runnymede"-it has become the most iconic document in the Western liberal tradition, and the year 1215 has become in a sense “year zero" in the story of the struggle for freedom from tyranny.3 The four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, held by the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral, and Salisbury Cathedral, are treated with the reverence normally accorded to ancient religious texts. Visitors to the U.S. National Archives in Washington DC will find that the Magna Carta is the first thing they see when they pass through the security zone: An edition of the charter dating from 1297, which was bought for more than $20 million at auction in 2007, sits, dimly lit, as the physical and metaphorical starting point for the history of American freedom. It is captioned with a quotation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who claimed that "the democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history.... It is written in Magna Carta."

That democracy was the last thing on the minds of the men who conceived and agreed to the terms of the Magna Carta is in a sense beside the point. From surprisingly early in the thirteenth century the document's legend had begun to outgrow its terms, and that process has continued to the present day. The Magna Carta played an important role in the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It provided a constitutional first principle for the rebellious colonists of New England who became the Founding Fathers of the United States and it informed the drafting of the Constitution. Its words are echoed in the clauses of the U.S. Bill of Rights and the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it was cited by Nelson Mandela in his famous Rivonia speech in 1964. Three of the Magna Carta’s sixty-three clauses remain law in England today, but as one scholar has recently noted, it has been quoted in constitutional debates more frequently than any other text except for the Bible.4 How did that happen? As we consider the charter from eight hundred years’ distance, the myth and symbolism of the Magna Carta have become almost wholly divorced from its original history. That fact is in its way as interesting as the content of the charter itself.

This book tells the story of the Magna Carta—its background, its birth, its almost instantaneous failure, its slow resurrection, and its mutation into the thing it is today: a historical palimpsest onto which almost any dream can be written. It looks at the Magna Carta’s place in the history of medieval England and describes how the charter was exported to America and the wider world and how it came to be admired as the starting point in the story of Western liberty, democracy, and freedom under the law. It also presents the text in modern English translation so that readers can see what it was that so many of England’s political elite were determined to secure as fundamental rights from their king.

At its heart lies a narrative of defiance and dispute between the third Plantagenet king, John, and a group of his barons, who went about for a time under the name “The Army of God and the Holy Church.” Mutual distrust and a fair deal of loathing had lingered between this group and the king for more than three years, but in the spring of 1215 their differences spilled over into naked constitutional crisis. In the autumn this turned to war and by the winter it seemed that this war was set to rival the very worst in living memory: the twelfth-century “Anarchy” that had pitted William the Conqueror’s granddaughter Matilda against her cousin Stephen. So in the central chapters of this book we follow a short, eventful, and critical period in a wider struggle for a political settlement between a king and his leading subjects, looking not only at events in Runnymede but also at the clash of personalities, ideologies, and swords that gave birth to the Magna Carta.

In the course of that narrative I try to place the charter in text of a year of change and upheaval beyond the borders of England. In France a long tussle for dominance between Plantagenet kings and their Capetian rivals was moving decisively in favor of the latter. The people of England were coming to terms with the consequences of the loss of Normandy, an event that held just as much significance as the Norman Conquest of 1066.

We cannot consider English politics and English society in this period without examining religious life during this extraordinarily muscular era in the history of Christianity. Neither should we ignore the fact that 1215 was the year that Pope Innocent III's Fourth Lateran Council met in Rome. The Fourth Lateran made substantial alterations to the lives of millions of people, issuing new commands on everything from the sacrament of confession to the identifying clothing that was to be worn by Jews and Muslims to the number of times that parish churches were to be cleaned. Many educated people would have considered it a much more important congress provincial gathering that took place at Runnymede in June of the same year.

I have tried here to write a history of the year that made the Magna Carta in the fullest sense. As well as describing the high politics of the year, I build up a picture of what life was like for people at every level of society: king and barons, knights and merchants, priests and peasants. This account of the Magna Carta is at least in part a history "from the bottom up" as well as "from the top down." And by the end I hope that readers will have a sense of 1215 not only as a year of world-changing importance but also as what it was for most people: just another year in the life of medieval England.



All this being said, it is essential to note that the Magna Carta had deeper roots than John’s reign. While John’s own often-appalling behavior was much to blame for the chaos that rained down upon him during his final years, he was not by any means the sole architect of his woes. This is a point recognized both by modern historians and by men who lived at the time. The chronicler Ralph of Cogge- shall, writing in the middle of the thirteenth century, observed that the Magna Carta was not created simply to restrain John but also to end “the evil customs which the father and brother of the king had created to the detriment of the Church and kingdom, along with those abuses which the kind had added.”5 Gerald of Wales, who was always inclined to anti-Plantagenet hysteria in his writing, agreed, calling John a “tyrannous whelp,” but admitted that he had “issued from the most bloody tyrants.”6 This was typical Geraldic exaggeration; nevertheless it nods us in the direction of an important historical truth: We cannot simply view the Magna Carta as a bill of protest and remedy aimed at the scandalous and unlucky John but must recognize it as a howl of historical complaint that was directed, at least on some level, against two generations of perceived abuse.

To begin this story, therefore, we must reach back sixty years before 1215 to the time of John’s father, Henry II.

Dan Jones

Battersea, London

2015




 

 

7

Confrontation

 

ing John had promised his barons that he would meet them to settle their long list of grievances in Northampton at Easter, which fell that year on April 19. He did no such thing. In- stead he spent Easter in London, staying at his favored spot, the New Temple, just outside the city walls.

Holy Week was the most solemn festival in the whole Church calendar. It began on Palm Sunday, when processions marked the passage of Christ into Jerusalem. The week that followed was a swell of ritual and liturgical ceremony. Churches burst into color and song after the austere solemnity of Lent as they prepared to mark the awe- some occasion of the Passion and Resurrection. John was the first English king to observe Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of a few (carefully selected) paupers, who had in years past been presented with robes and cash gifts as a mark of royal penitence. Elsewhere in England men busied themselves by having their hair and beards trimmed to prepare for the festival ahead.1

On a typical Good Friday England’s parishioners came to church to hear a reading of the whole Passion as recounted in the Gospel of John, after which a crucifix was unveiled at the high altar so that the clergy and congregation could crawl barefoot to kiss its base in the ceremony known as “Creeping to the Cross.”2 King John entertained himself on Easter Sunday just as he had done at Christmas: with a performance of “Christus Vincit.” This time the chorus was led by Master Henry of Cerne and Robert of Xanton. (One had come from Dorset and the other from near Poitiers in France, although both were described in the chit for payment that was issued a couple of days later simply as "clergymen in our chapel.")3

John's choice of music was as traditional and triumphant as it matched his bullish mood. All across his realm military preparations continued apace: Towns were barricaded, castles staffed with extra soldiers, and catapults and crossbows ordered, and mercenaries continued to muster. Tens of thousands of square headed crossbow bolts were supplied to royal strongholds.4 The royal forests of Essex, Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire, and Yorkshire groaned with the sound of trees falling to provide timber for defensive building works....

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