Friday, October 14, 2011

King John and the Magna Carta

by Elizabeth Chadwick

My novel To Defy A King, recent winner of the UK's RNA Award for Best Historical Novel 2011, is in part a story about what happens when royal tyranny goes too far. Mahelt Marshal, a young heiress is caught up in an escalating dispute between the English barons and King John. Her father has been specifically singled out by him, and her brothers are taken hostage. Mahelt’s marriage family is seriously affected too, not least because they become her protectors.
One of the major, history changing documents to come out of the wider scope of this dispute between King John and his senior lords was the Magna Carta.

King John and the Magna Carta.

‘John by the grace of God, King of England, lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou, to the Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants and to all his bailiffs and liege subjects, greetings.’

This is the opening salutation of the Magna Carta, sealed by King John at Runnymede (a meadow between Windsor and Staines) on the 15th of June 1215, and known in its day as ‘The Great Charter of English Liberties.’
After several days of negotiation between the King and his rebellious barons, John acceded to their demands and agreed to remedy 49 specific grievances set before him. This particular document was known as the Articles of the Barons. From this was drafted the Magna Carta and copies were sent far and wide across the country.
Magna Carta is one of the most important documents in English history and its clauses have had their part to play in constitutions around the world, notably the American one. It underlines the Declaration of Human Rights.
Only four copies survive today, (in Lincoln Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Library in London) but at the outset, when it was sent around England, it has been estimated that there were as many as forty.
Originally, Magna Carta was a list of grievances made by a group of barons in revolt against King John. Many of these claims were driven by purely aristocratic concerns. For example, one clause says ‘Heirs shall be married without disparagement with due notice given to the next of kin.’ This clause came about because of King John’s habit of rewarding his mercenaries, often men of lowly birth, with wealthy heiresses or widows. The families of the women involved greatly resented this and viewed it as an insult to their family bloodline. Another clause was that John’s demands for military service abroad should not exceed the legal requirement. Several times John had tried to make his barons perform military service beyond that which they legally owed, and he had turned on them when they declined.
Despite the grievances being aristocratic concerns, the Magna Carta nevertheless brought ordinary men within its enclave, specifically with clauses 39 and 40, which are still enshrined in constitutions today. ‘No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him, nor seize upon him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land. And:‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay justice.’
That these clauses were deemed to be necessary, and that the barons felt the King needed to be brought to sign a charter encapsulating them, says a great deal about King John’s personality and manner of government!
However, the Magna Carta was not the first charter of its kind to be issued. Kings as far back as Anglo Saxon times had issued voluntary charters as diplomatic exercises, swearing to govern wisely and well and see justice done to all. When the barons came to work on something to bind John, they looked back to these charters, specifically to ones issued by Norman kings following in the Anglo Saxon tradition. They took the one issued by John’s great grandfather Henry I, who had based his own on the charter of his brother William Rufus. So for example, this clause is part of Henry’s charter.
3. And if any of my barons or other men should wish to give his daughter, sister, niece, or kinswoman in marriage, let him speak with me about it; but I will neither take anything from him for this permission nor prevent his giving her unless he should be minded to join her to my enemy. And if, upon the death of a baron or other of my men, a daughter is left as heir, I will give her with her land by the advice of my barons. And if, on the death of her husband, the wife is left and without children, she shall have her dowry and right of marriage, and I will not give her to a husband unless according to her will. The full text can be read here.
The fundamental difference between the older charters and the Magna Carta of John’s reign is that the earlier ones were issued voluntarily, and Magna Carta was not. It also goes so much further. It’s a document by the will of the barons, not by the will of the King. Hugh Bigod, the hero of To Defy A King was one of the lords involved (along with his father) in drafting the terms of Magna Carta. Both men were highly accomplished lawyers. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and father of my heroine Mahelt Marshal, was also part of the committee, although acting as a spokeman for John. Together with the senior baronial representatives, he stands today in the gallery of the House of Lords, commemorated by a Pugin statue.
Immediately John had signed the Magna Carta, he then reneged on the agreement, declaring it invalid because he had been made to put his seal to it under duress, and he appealed to the pope to absolve him of the promises he had made. As far as he was concerned, he was being put in a cage and denied the will to govern as a king properly should.
Following his denial, the country was engulfed in civil war. John died in October of the following year and William Marshal was appointed regent. One of the first things he did was to reissue Magna Carta in an attempt to rally everyone behind him. Initially the results were modest, but gradually the country came round. The charter was reissued with revisions in 1216/17, 1225 and 1297. Clauses were still in use in England until 1969 – that’s well within living memory!
The Magna Carta was born out of baronial feelings of alienation and a need to bring a tyrant king to order. They did not succeed at the outset, but in creating the document, their efforts left a legacy that still resonates around the world today in ways that its founders probably never envisaged. It truly was and is the Great Charter.
The full set of clauses can be read here:
Tomb of King John in Worcester Cathedral


  1. Thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick, author of To Defy A King, the UK's RNA Award for Best Historical Novel for 2011 for sharing her informative and interesting insights into King John and the Magna Carta--a great overview of the reasons for one of history's most important documents!

  2. Your posting was a more interesting writing style than my history textbook from years ago- which was the last time I had occasion to take a close look at this topic. (-;
    Thanks for your work and look forward to enjoying the book you wrote which compliments it.

  3. Yes, it is well written- I love enjoyable history as a fiction writer could relate. Thank you for the lesson. Some rulers truly thought they were God, or at least God's representative on earth. Their behavior alone shows they were not.

  4. Excellent post. I saw the Salisbury Cathedral copy when I was in Britain. It is an amazing piece of history that is still with us.

  5. I finally got to see the copy at Salisbury this summer - almost equally exciting is the oldest working (medieval) clock located in the cathedral itself.

  6. Great blog and congratulations on the RNA award!!!!

  7. Thank you for an excellent post on an important event in history.

  8. Elizabeth Chadwick, author of To Defy A King, the UK's RNA Award for Best Historical Novel 2011, gives us a very interesting, informative, insightful and easily absorbed, overview of the Magna Carta, one of history's most important documents. Thanks for sharing.


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