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King John and the signing of the Magna Carta

The rebellion of 1215

There was always the seed of rebellion in medieval England and Kings had, from 1066 acted swiftly to quell rebellion, usually by placating the rebel barons and nobles.

The rebellion of 1215 was to lead to the signing of the fabled Magna Carta.

The causes of the rebellion can be noted as

  • Resentment by men who felt excluded from the rule of the country which denied them power and money. John was giving presents, grants of land, offering marriages- but not to anyone in their families. These people became dissidents and capitalised on the King's defeat in battle in France, to stir up discontent against him.
  • The Whole of the baronage resented the amount of money that they had to pay in taxes. The administration was well organised, so much in control that the Barons could not keep a portion of the taxes for themselves. Taxes were high. King John had inherited the costs of King Richard's crusades and ransom and on top of this was to money for the unsuccessful war waged in France by King John. Landowners found difficulty raising this money, some even borrowed from Jewish money lenders at high rates of interest.
  • other duties and taxes were imposed, such as custom duties which made a difficult situation even worse. Some nobles had been involved in developing trade with other parts of the world including the trade of exporting wool and importing wine through the Humber estuary and their income was diminished.

1214 and trouble is brewing

Thus there was an underlying seething pit of discontent, all it needed was a spark to ignite the nobility into rebellion. In 1214 King John demanded that a scutage fee be paid. This was literally a shield tax with marks payable for every knight in the service of the lord. The northern barons had agreed with King John not to pay scutage but whilst John was away in France he instructed Peter Des Roches to enforce the collection of money from all of the barons, including those from the north. Des Roches met with resistance in the north and as news filtered through of King John's defeat in France, this resistance became more widespread.

King John

King John

King John returns from France

King John returned to England from France on 15th October 1214 encountering a very tense situation with his Barons. It is recorded that the Barons produced a "charter of liberties" which had been granted to the English Barons by King Henry 1. The barons demanded that King John confirm this charter. The king called a meeting in London on 6th January 1215, giving safe conduct to the Barons who attended th meeting. King John was formally asked by the Barons to confirm the charter of King Henry and the Laws of England. King John reserved his answer saying that he would consider what was asked and give his answer after Easter.

John did not remain idle in this period, he sought help from the Pope, (INNOCENT III). In return for King John pledging to join the crusades the pope mediated between the two parties which resulted in him asking King John to treat the petitions of the Barons with sympathy whilst at the same time he told the Barons that they must not conspire against the King or try to obtain advantage by using force of their arms.. This was followed by a command from the Pope that the nobles should pay the scutage that was demanded by the King.

Tower of London

Tower of London

The rebellion gathers strength

It is believed that King John thought the matter with the Barons was settled but the Barons were back at their homes and castles, fortifying themselves for war and demanding that King John reply to their request. The Barons met together and tried to see the King who sent Intermediaries to discover what the Barons wanted. When told of their demands he refused to grant them and the Barons subsequently renounced their fealty to the King.

on 5th May 1215 the rebels marched and occupied Bedford- a royalist stronghold. King John asked that the case go to arbitration with representatives of both sides chaired by the Pope. He said he would not arrest or attack or attempt to capture the dissident barons. This offer was perhaps unsurprisingly not accepted.

The number of Barons involved in the rebellion has never been fully known. Certainly there was trouble in the North of England and some support from Eastern and South Western England. King John had his own supporters, wealthy and experienced men such as the Earls of Pembroke, Salisbury, Warwick, Devon and Surrey. King John had mercenary forces under his control which he kept in reserve for his attack on London. John had paid for the adulation of the Londoners by granting a charter which was favourable to its citizens. However, before King John's mercenaries could get to London some rebels opened the gates to the city to the rebels who entered the city, taking the property of the Jews and pulling down their houses in retribution for the usurious rates of interest that they had been charged

Some of the King's supporters were camped in the Tower of London which became besieged by the rebels. Again King John, played for time asking Archbishop Stephen Langton to arrange a truce whilst he wrote to the pope and awaited his reply.The truce was tenuous to say the least and it was only because of the hard work of the Archbishop that warfare did not break out.

The meadow at Runnymeade

On 15th June 1215 in a meadow called Runnymeade, between Windsor and Staines on the bank of the River Thames, the charter was signed and issued by John as a result of negotiations with the Barons, Chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall noted "a sort of peace was made". On the 19th of June the peace was confirmed and the King refrained from attacks on the Barons and some, but not all, renewed their homage to him.

The charter was a comprehensive document. In fact draft copies had circulated before the signing, these copies being found in Canterbury Cathedral in the eighteenth century. The charter was granted to all free men in England and it was agreed to abolish many of the heavy dues and fines that the King had demanded. The charter was to abolish evil customs that had developed under the Angevins and return the country to its, largely fictitious, glorious past. Clause 61 of the charter stated that the Magna Carta would become a permanent part of English law by allowing the barons to elect 25 representatives to "with their utmost power, keep, hold and cause to be kept the peace and liberties which we have granted unto them and by this our present charter have confirmed. This is what King John said before he changed his mind!

Brief details of the Magna Carta

The right of rebellion was ensconced in the charter , if the King failed to keep his part in the charter the Barons were entitled to take the King's land and possessions until full compensation had been made.

The charter was long. 63 clauses which defined the liberties of the free men

  • It set out the way in which the King obtained dues
  • Fees on succession of heirs, ward ships were set out
  • Scutage could only be imposed by the agreement of the countries council, not the King.
  • Jews were restricted on the amount of interest that they could charge on debts.
  • Unpopular men were removed from the King's entourage.
  • Evil customs in the Kings' forests were abolished
  • there were clauses confirming to the liberties of the church, the city of London and foreign merchants.
  • Clause 39- "No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.
  • Clause 40 pronounced "To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.

Why did the John sign the Magna Carta?

Chroniclers did not write any specific reason as to why King John signed the Magna Carta when he did. Some historians believed that it was a delaying tactic by the King (who was certainly known for this) to keep the peace in the country whilst he awaited a legal answer from the pope in Rome. The King believed that the had the law on his side and the Barons who were against him would be found to be wrong. Perhaps also, King John was not sure who supported him, and this would give him a respite to find out who did support him.

The charter had two roles- one as a peace treaty and the other as a statute which qualified and emphasised the supremacy of law above even the wishes of the King, even when he behaved badly or in direct opposition to the wishes of the nobles. Those who knew King John knew that this was something he would not adhere to.

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Communication of the points detailed in the Magna Carta was delayed. Copies were to be read out in each county court, yet even by mid July many courts had not received a copy. There were problems over interpretation. In the Barons eyes clause 52 deprived the King Of his right to patronage and clause 61 deprived him of his sovereign power which King John would not, in the long term agree to.

The Barons hada plan "B" , an insurance policy against John renagingon the treaty. A tereaty was made between John and Robert Fitzwalter concerning the status of London, currently held by the rebels. The treaty allowed the Barons to hold the capuital until 15th August and if John did not fulfil the charter they would continue to hold London.

King John goes back on his word

Some of the Barons met with representatives of the crown on 16th July at Oxford, although some lands were reinstated the majority of the Barons refused to acknowledge their obligations to the crown, Assembling again Oxford on 20th August 1215 John refused to attend but sent a message to say that he had kept his part of the bargain and that the Baron's should restore London.

The pope had taken the side of the King and commanded Archbishop Langton to excommunicate all who disturbed the pace of the realm, Langton was subsequently suspended for refusing to do this as he saw the necessity of an organised peace. However as Innocent III had declared the Magna Carta was against eh laws of the land King John took firm action and start to confiscate the lands of the rebel Barons. On 24th August a papal bull was published "Et si Carissimus" which annulled the charter and asked the Barons to accept the King and his divine power. Civil war had started by the time the papal bull arrived in England, with little effect. It was the civil war in which King John was to die.

The rebellion was characterised by being a reform rebellion- it was not undertaken by another claimant to the throne but simply by rebels who wanted reform of the King's government rather than a new King. A lot of the charter contains references to financial matters - the Barons simply wanted to stop King John from taking so much money off them!

The death of King John

King John died unexpectedly at Newark castle in October 1216, possibly as a result of dysentary from overeating, or even poisoning. The rebels were by now supporting Louis of France but the royalist supporters of his young son, King Henry rapidly adopted the content of the Magna Carta, taking the fight out of the rebels and forcing Louis to go home.

Was King John really a bad man?


"English Rebel" David Horspool

"King John and the Magna Carta" JAP Jones

"King Johm" Maurice Ashley- I must point out that Ashley seemed to be of the opinion that the Magna Carta was actually signed during Henry's reign after the death of King John, however all the other sources, more that I have not listed seemed to indicate that the Magna Carta was John's work.


Marsha on August 04, 2019:

No question really King John "lackland" was my 23rd Great Grandfather and certainly no son of the devil. He just didn't do a good job taking care of land and other territories under British rule

nick on March 13, 2012:

king john was a ruthless king with a temper as a child. If you do your research, he went back on the magna carta and basically used his power to corrupt the pope. great article btw :)

CASE1WORKER (author) from UNITED KINGDOM on June 10, 2011:

from what I can gather it was the work of Simon De Montfort in the reign of John's son Henry that was part of the US government- I think you have just given me the topic for my next piece of research! thanks!

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on June 09, 2011:

I admit that I know very little about this. However, as I understand it the Magna Carta is part of the background for our own (US) government,

CASE1WORKER (author) from UNITED KINGDOM on June 09, 2011:

Fay- thanks, glad you liked it- i was a bit worried it was too long but there was a lot to cover- thanks for the vote

Fay Paxton on June 09, 2011:

Excellent hub. Clear, concise and more than I ever learned in school about the Magna Carta. I always learn something when I visit your hubs. Thanks. up/very useful, awesome

CASE1WORKER (author) from UNITED KINGDOM on June 09, 2011:

scarytaff- thanks ever so much- i have been working on it for a little while

Derek James from South Wales on June 09, 2011:

An excellent hub case1worker. Well done.

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