Society and Government Middle Ages

The Magna Carta: Unstable England Lays the First Brick of Modern Government

No one really likes to be told what to do. Most of us put up with it to some degree or another because we have to. But if the person in charge takes things a bit too far, then there’s usually push back. 

In Europe in the Middle Ages, this kind of thing happened a lot. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, numerous different kingdoms appeared across western Europe. Few got along with one another, nevermind united as one.

Feudalism, a rigid hierarchy in which kings were at the top and lords and nobles right below them, kept things moving forward. But it hardly created peace. Powerful nobles were constantly challenging kings for more power and kings were constantly trying to keep those below them in check.

These quarrels usually led to war. But sometimes diplomacy won out. 

The most famous example came in the early 13th century England. 

The tense relationship between the king and the many English nobles, known as barons, resulted in the signing of the Magna Carta.

One of the most influential documents from the Middle Ages, and a cornerstone of modern law, the Magna Carta put European history on a new course. This new direction led away from kings and feudalism and towards much more liberal, egalitarian forms of government, much like the ones we see today.

The Angevin Dynasty and King John

To understand why the Magna Carta was signed and why it’s significant, it’s important to first look at the relationship of English nobility in the 12th century. 

For starters, they didn’t all live in England. 

At the time, the Kingdom of England included land that is now part of France. 

One region, Normandy, was particularly important to the English. It was across the English Channel from mainland England and therefore held strategic and economic importance. Controlling both sides of the Channel helped the English control all movement into and out of Northern Europe. 

At the end of the 12th century, the Duke of Normandy, through marriage and military conquest, gained control of almost all of Western France, and then, thanks to the death of King Stephen of England, the throne of England. 

His name was Henry, aka King Henry II.

Hooray for Henry! He hit the Medieval political jackpot. Nothing left to do except kick back and enjoy the ride. 

Not so fast!

The Ambitious Angevin Kings

Given their heritage, these kings, Henry II, Richard I and John, who became known as the Angevin dynasty, spent a lot of time in France, not England, waging war to expand their realm. 

The second Angevin king, King Richard, even earned himself the nickname King Richard the Lionhearted, due to his valor and bravery on the battlefield. 

But all this war was expensive. Soldiers had to be fed and armed, and new conquered territories required attention and rebuilding if they were to remain conquered and subdued. 

How did the Angevin kings raise this money? By taxing his English lords, or barons, of course!. 

He figured, “Hey! I’m the king of England. The English barons have to support me.” 

This was usually how feudalism worked. A king or monarch united his nobles around a cause, and they provided money and men to help achieve that cause. In return, the king granted them land and other riches. 

But the English barons were like, “Wait…You’re waging expensive wars in France for your own personal gain, and then you want us to pay for it? What’s in it for us?” 

What’s more, the Angein kings weren’t exactly nice about asking for money and men. They made large demands, and when they weren’t met or resisted, the response was usually violent. 

The king would execute someone important, burn a village, throw someone in jail. You know, the usual Medieval stuff. 

Naturally, this didn’t sit too well, so the barons of England decided to stand up and fight back. But instead of just trying to get even with the King, they took aim at the entire institution of the English monarchy. 

“Why should one guy have all the power?” they wondered. 

A simple question, sure. But it was one of the first times in western European history that someone had seriously asked it. 

Signing the Magna Carta

Signing the Magna Carta

During the reign of King John, the third of the Angevin kings, things got a bit tense between him and his barons. 

It all started with his defeat on the battlefield. 

King Philip II of France managed to take a lot of the lands in western France away from the English throne. As he was being pushed back towards England, John kept demanding more and more help from his English barons. But after more than a century of being forced to pay for expensive wars in France, the barons put their foot down and finally said “no.” 

Many refused to send their men across the English channel, which left John even more vulnerable. 

Eventually, he lost Normandy to Philipp and had no choice but to return to England. 

While negotiating peace with Philip, he agreed to pay retribution, aka money to fix all the stuff he’d broken while waging war. 

Once again, he went to his barons, like he had before, and demanded they pay up. 

But once again, the barons were like, “Whoa! Hold up! Why should we have to pay?”

They were saying, “if you want to be King of England, you’ve got to give us something in return.”

Now faced with few other choices, King John was forced to give in to his barons and agree to their demands. 

So, in 1215, John met his barons at Runnymede, a meadow not too far from Windsor castle, that was considered neutral ground. There he signed the Magna Carta Libertatum, or the “Great Charter.” 

It was a big deal at the time, and it remains a big deal today. 

But why?

Key Principles of the Magna Carta

In Medieval society, the king was always at the top. The root of his power was largely arbitrary. He usually inherited it from someone else, who also inherited it from someone else, who married someone powerful, and who also won a war. But no matter how a king came to power, his authority was considered to be absolute. 

The nobles, those right below the kings in Medieval society, never really loved this. But it was how things were done and they had no choice but to go along with it. 

The situation in England, however, gave the nobles a chance to challenge this order in a meaningful way, and they took this opportunity to put into writing some key ideas that would change the course of not only Medieval European history but also that of the entire world. 

The Magna Carta included a total of 63 different clauses, most dealing with feudal relations. But a few stand out as particularly significant. 

Mainly, the Magna Carta stated that:

  • No new taxes could be levied without the approval of a council of barons
  • All free men have the right to a trial by jury
  • All free citizens can own and inherit property
  • The king is not above the law. Instead, he is a subject of it. 

A Revolutionary Set of Ideas

These four points were revolutionary at the time. For one, a trial by jury ensured that justice would be more, well, just. 

Instead of a king or noble deciding on his own what to do with someone who had been charged with a crime, a group, which would naturally be less biased, would decide instead. 

Allowing all free men to own and inherit property prevented land from being seized after the owner died, helping reduce warfare and ensuring peace. Again, revolutionary.

But the other two points are perhaps the most important. By requiring new taxes to be approved by a baron, the Magna Carta placed serious limitations on the power of the king. 

It was far from a democracy, but it was far more democratic than a king making all the decisions on his own! And lastly, the Magna Carta put into writing that the king was not above the law. 

This was perhaps the most shocking of all the clauses included in the Magna Carta. 

Nearly all Medieval societies were built around the idea that the king was the law. He was granted the right to rule by God, and therefore could not be questioned. But by subjecting him to the law, the barons put a system in place for limiting his power and breaking down this notion that the king could do as he pleased with little to no consequences.

It would take a few more centuries for this idea to truly change the world, but the seed had been planted.

Annulling and Reissuing the Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was a pretty big deal. 

It put into writing ideas that had probably been discussed over and over again, but that no one ever managed to make official. And, more importantly, they got a king to sign it! That’s huge!

So, then, we can just assume that from this moment on, feudalism broke down and representative democracy burst onto the scene. 

Again, not so fast!

While the Magna Carta was a big deal, its immediate impacts have proven to be more symbolic than anything else. King John died the following year in 1216 AD. This ended the validity of Magna Carta, but only for a little while. 

Over the next 10 years, the different versions of the Magna Carta were nullified and reissued several times, but one came about in 1225 AD that looked very similar to the original. 

Most importantly, this 1225 AD charter established the Council of Barons, a group of nobles who would advise the king and have the authority to approve or reject some of his decisions.

This council is the first appearance of an institution we now call English parliament.

The Backbone of the Modern Rule of Law

The original Magna Carta, the one signed in 1215 between King John and his barons, didn’t last much more than a year. But its spirit lived on. By getting John to sign, the barons had taken a significant step towards limiting the power of the king. 

Over the course of the next few centuries, this process would continue to unfold. The council constructed to advise the king, aka Parliament, grew in size and power, eventually becoming the supreme power of the land. 

Of course, for modern standards, the scope of the Magna Carta was limited. Power was still excluded from 99 percent of the population and only rich, landowning men could advise the king. It was far from the democracies we have today. 

However, after centuries of one man making all the decisions, the Magna Carta changed things and changed them forever.

Written by Matthew Jones

Illustrated by Jean Galvao