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Magna Carta - Events Leading To The Magna Carta

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Events leading to the Magna Carta

Throughout his reign, and despite employing a powerful army of mercenaries, King John suffered repeated defeat in a series of wars to defend Britain's land in western France. The wars were disastrous; not only was warfare expensive but King John also lost income that had been generated from the French lands for the British crown. King John demanded increasing payments from his barons to pay military costs and make up for lost income.

King John and his subjects lived in a feudal society. In accordance with feudal custom the king granted barons land in return for an oath of loyalty, obedience, and military service. The barons provided knights for the king's military whenever required instead of paying rent to the king. Barons received control over their land but it was still owned by the king. In turn, the barons granted smaller parcels of their land to individuals chosen to serve as knights. This arrangement was known as holding land "in fee" from the king. For their loyalty, the king was obliged to treat his barons and knights with fairness and respect.

In addition to military service, a king was allowed to charge and collect a variety of taxes or fees from barons to support the crown. Customary fees included reliefs, aids, scutage, and county court fines. Reliefs were collected when a baron died and the baron's heir inherited the baron's land and other property. If the heir was underage, the king could take guardianship over the land and all of its profits. The king could sell the guardianship to anyone who could pay the worth of the land. When the heir came of age, he had to pay a relief to get his land back. The king also had the right to sell widows and daughters into marriage for the price of the land. With regard to reliefs, King John dealt unsympathetically and for maximum profit.

For special occasions, the king collected fees called aids from the barons. There were three such occasions: when the king's eldest son was knighted, when his eldest daughter married, and for ransom money should the king be captured and a ransom required. A scutage was a cash payment to the king instead of providing knights for military service. The payments allowed the king to hire men to serve in his army.

By King John's reign, excessively high scutage payments were commonly demanded to fulfill a baron's military obligation. Further, King John appointed all of the judges of England's county courts. The fines imposed on those who ran afoul of the courts were extreme, often taking an individual's property and possessions.

In the 1200s the pope was still the spiritual overseer of the Catholic Church. King John continually struggled over power with Pope Innocent III (1160–1216). He strenuously fought the 1206 election of Stephen Langton (d. 1228) as archbishop of Canterbury, the most powerful church position in England. King John even refused Langton entry into England until 1213. In 1215 Langton became a key negotiator between the king and his barons during negotiations over issues addressed in the Magna Carta.

Around 1210 King John's fee demands had become unreasonable, breaking all rules of customary fairness. He acted impulsively and with no regard to justice. Having had enough of this uncontrolled use of power, in January 1215 the rebellious land barons wrote down their complaints against the king. They demanded a document be drawn up guaranteeing justice in taxation, respect for ancient feudal customs of mutual obligation and fairness, and limits on King John's power.

On June 10 the barons, dressed in full armor, met the king's representatives in Runnymede meadow on the banks of the River Thames to continue negotiations. Faced with losing the barons' loyalty and a probable civil war, King John reluctantly agreed to the demands listed in a document called the "Articles of the Barons." King John placed his seal on the articles on June 15, 1215; the barons renewed their allegiance to the king on June 19.

In the days immediately following June 15, officials at the royal chancery (records office) formally drafted the full text of the points agreed to at Runnymede in the form of a legal letter. The document eventually became known as the Magna Carta (Latin for the "Great Charter"). The royal chancery then distributed copies to county sheriffs and bishops to be read to the people.

King John of England, whose tyrannical rule led to the creation of the Magana Carta. (© Corbis)

The Magna Carta contained sixty-three clauses. The first guaranteed the rights and liberties of the Catholic Church free from royal interference. Nearly two-thirds of the clauses addressed the king's abuses of feudal fees and wrote down what the king could and could not charge according to customs. Other clauses dealt with justice and limited fines the king's judges could charge those taken to court.

Clauses 39 and 40, given no special significance at the time, addressed civil liberties, halted unjust imprisonment, and introduced the idea of trial by "equals," meaning trial by one's peers. Ultimately these two clauses would be key to the Magna Carta's legacy of creating fundamental principles of law. The most radical clause provided for the election of twentyfive barons to a commission to enforce the rules set down in the document. The commission had the power to seize property from the king if he did not follow the charter's rules.

As sealed in 1215 the Magna Carta was simply an agreement between the king and barons to help defuse a political crisis. It was not intended to be the foundation of democratic civil liberties or set legal principles. For the first time in history, however, a king agreed in writing that he was not above the rules of the land and that his authority could be limited by a written document. The deceptive King John had no real intention of abiding by the charter, he only hoped to buy time until he could overpower the barons. That the Magna Carta did become a basis for democracy was due to the way it was handled after the king's death and to the practical use of its clauses, which spoke to the needs of people who desired to live freely.

The following excerpt from the Magna Carta as reprinted in Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths provides a sampling of clauses as written in 1215.

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