Post-classical history

Chapter 4
The road to Runnymede

Much of the outrage against John’s dealings with the pope was expressed only in hindsight, years later, when John’s manoeuvres had long been exposed as failures. At the time, John had cause to hope for better things. With the pope now an ally, and with the threat of a French invasion averted, John could employ the vast treasure that he had built up over the previous ten years, to launch precisely that campaign of reconquest in France of which he had long dreamed. The wealth of England and of the English Church, tapped mercilessly since 1204, now lay at the king’s disposal. An attempt in the spring of 1213 to carry war to the French nonetheless ended in fiasco, when a series of summonses to his barons met with widespread resistance. Reviving the complaint first voiced by the bishops of the 1190s, that their service should be limited to England alone, a significant number of barons refused to join the king’s army summoned to sail for Poitou.

There were two consequences here. The first was that John was unable to send an army to France. In September 1213, and without English support, his chief allies in the south, the King of Aragon and the Count of Toulouse, suffered a crushing defeat by the French. At the battle of Muret outside Toulouse, John’s southern alliance crumbled to dust. Secondly, the resistance of the English barons led to a widespread perception that there now existed a significant constituency of baronial opposition to the king.

Contemporaries, from 1213 onwards, began to refer to this group of malcontents as the ‘Northerners’. In so far as they can be identified, the barons in question held their lands not only in Northumberland and Cumbria but in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and the north Midlands: a region that had suffered particularly exploitative government for the past ten years. It was to buy off this opposition that, in the final months of 1213, John sought terms. After a three-week tour of the north, accompanied by the full panoply of his hounds and his hawks, clearly intended to show off the sheer brute power at his disposal, on 1 November 1213, the king met with the ‘Northerners’ at Wallingford. There, through the mediation of the Church, he seems to have made some sort of promise to uphold ancient liberties. A week later, nonetheless, he commanded all knights summoned to a council at Oxford to come armed, whilst the barons were to appear in person and unarmed. This was a blatant attempt to intimidate the barons, and as such typical of John’s combination of unreliability and guile. This was a king whose promises could never be trusted.

In the short term, threats proved effective where promises failed. In the winter of 1213, John began disbursing his vast store of treasure, to buy allies in France, to purchase the support of the claimant to the Holy Roman Empire, the Saxon ruler Otto IV, and to win over the barons of Flanders to his cause. Two great armies were to be launched from England. The first, commanded by the king’s half-brother, William ‘Longsword’, earl of Salisbury, would join with the Germans and Flemings to attack France from the north. John himself would cross to Poitou and thence attack from south of the Loire. This was truly a grand alliance, financed by a war chest raised from taxation and other profits of government equivalent to the treasure expended in the Norman Conquest of 1066, or indeed, in comparative terms, in the D-Day landings of 1944. Yet even before its launch, there were signs that not all would go according to plan.

To begin with, the alliance with Toulouse and Aragon upon which John had pinned his hopes for the past few years had now disintegrated, with the King of Aragon slain on the battlefield of Muret and the Count of Toulouse, long a suspected heretic, forced into exile in England. William ‘Longsword’, appointed by John as commander of his northern alliance, was a peculiar choice as king’s friend. The illegitimate son of John’s father, Henry II, born to one of Henry II’s many mistresses, William’s background supplied startling evidence of Plantagenet family disfunctionality. If modern research is to be trusted, William’s mother, subsequently countess of Norfolk, was herself the cousin of one woman and the daughter of another both of whom had previously shared Henry II’s bed. It is surely indicative of King John’s wider failure that, whereas his father had managed to commit adultery on an heroic scale and even to live down the murder of St Thomas Becket, John’s own crimes, both of violence and of lust, were met with fury and ultimately with retribution. Henry II was a successful tyrant; John was not. Finally, the king’s chosen governor for England during his absence, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, was leader of that ‘alien’ faction at court most distrusted by the English barons. Des Roches’s appointment was provocative both to the barons and to the Church, led by Stephen Langton, whose exile Des Roches had refused to join and against whose claims for financial compensation and ‘free’ elections to English bishoprics and monasteries he continued to work.

In England itself, there were further tensions, personal as well as political. In January 1214, John negotiated one of his more notorious pieces of financial business, auctioning off his first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, to Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex, for a vast fine of 20,000 marks. The terms of this fine were such that Geoffrey had no real prospect of paying. Moreover, since Isabella had been married to John for ten years in the 1190s without producing offspring and was by now almost certainly beyond child-bearing age, Geoffrey could hope for few long-term gains from such a marriage. The fine, and Geoffrey’s subsequent struggles with the Exchequer, were merely the most dramatic of the many dozens of such disputes that had punctuated John’s reign. The effect was to throw Geoffrey, now earl of both Essex and Gloucester, into the camp of the malcontents, significantly tipping the balance of power from king to barons.

All might still have gone well. William ‘Longsword’ enjoyed considerable military success in Flanders. In Poitou, John made contact with the local aristocracy in the expectation of future gains. On Sunday 27 July 1214, however, there came a mighty fall at the battle of Bouvines, fought a few miles to the south-east of Lille. Against the advice of William ‘Longsword’, the northern army’s knights charged the French and were slaughtered or captured in the aftermath. John himself was several hundred miles away, but the defeat of his northern alliance spelled an end to all his gains in the south. A decisive turning point in the history of France, guaranteeing that Philip Augustus would retain his territorial conquests of the past twenty years, Bouvines was a disaster for King John, its consequences in many ways as significant as those of the Battle of Hastings fought 150 years earlier. The road from Bouvines to Magna Carta was both straight and speedy. It is nonetheless some indication of his alleged inability to comprehend the full extent of the disaster that, in the aftermath of Bouvines, with William ‘Longsword’ held captive by the French, King John is said to have attempted the seduction of William’s wife. Old habits, like old rumours, die hard.

Already, by the time the battle was fought, a number of the English barons had signalled their disapproval of the king, refusing either to serve in person in John’s continental armies or to pay the ‘scutage’ demanded from those who stayed at home. In effect, this represented a tax strike: the first signal of the coming storm. It gathered pace after Bouvines, with several barons, including the earls of Winchester and Norfolk who had sent service to Poitou, now defecting to the malcontents. John returned from Poitou in October 1214, his treasure gone, the extraordinary efforts of the past ten years thrown away in a single day’s combat. Attempts were made to buy off the opposition. The king granted a charter of ‘free’ elections to the Church, modelled upon offers made by Henry I in his coronation charter of 1100, and by the King of Aragon in the face of baronial opposition as recently as 1207. Although the Interdict was lifted in November 1214, before full compensation had been paid to the English bishops, the king himself took the extraordinary step, on Ash Wednesday, 4 March 1215, of declaring himself a Crusader, pledged to embark with a Crusading army to the East. A few token gestures were made towards fulfilling this vow. A ship was prepared, but almost certainly as a potential escape capsule rather than as a real bid to fight in the Holy Land. The true purpose of John’s vows was to place himself and his realm more deeply under papal protection. As a Crusader he sought to make himself immune from attack at the hands of fellow Christians, including by now not only the king of France but John’s own barons.

The emergence of baronial opposition remains a murky and a poorly documented affair. We have a number of claims by the chroniclers, and a small selection of documents, all of which point to 1214 and the aftermath of Bouvines as the turning point in affairs. Nonetheless, even before the king embarked for France, rebellion was in the air. The coalition of interests between the English bishops and the leaders of the failed revolt of 1212, Robert fitz Walter and Eustace de Vescy, and the subsequent emergence of the ‘Northerners’ and their claims mediated by the Church in the autumn of 1213, were highly significant. In 1215, Robert fitz Walter was to style himself ‘Marshal of the Army of God’ in his role as rebel commander, perhaps parodying the title ‘marshal’ applied by the king to those supposedly mustering the king’s forces for Crusade: a potent reminder of the degree to which the rebels now saw themselves as champions of a holy cause.

According to the chronicler Roger of Wendover, perhaps as early as August 1213, Archbishop Stephen Langton had drawn public attention to Henry I’s coronation charter as a potential model for baronial dealings with John. The chronology and the factual accuracy of the chroniclers’ account of these events have both been challenged. Wendover alleges that, perhaps in July 1213 and as part of John’s settlement with the Church, the king had sworn an oath to uphold the laws of Edward the Confessor: an interesting example of the way in which the (largely mythical) laws of Good King Edward remained a gold standard against which to judge later sovereigns. In all likelihood, Wendover exaggerates here. If an undertaking was made, then it probably involved nothing more than a renewal of John’s coronation oaths: a promise to govern well with no specific reference to King Edward or earlier English law. Again, according to Wendover, probably in July 1213, the archbishop and various barons met with the king’s ministers at Roger’s own monastery of St Albans. There they were promised that the laws of Henry I would be maintained and all evil customs abolished. In the autumn of 1214, Wendover claims that the barons gathered at Bury St Edmunds and swore a collective oath to make war on the king should he fail to confirm Henry I’s coronation charter. Neither of these meetings is otherwise documented. Both may be fictitious, though this has done nothing to discourage the modern municipal authorities of Bury St Edmunds and St Albans from claiming status as ‘Magna Carta towns’, intimately associated with the charter’s negotiation.

Roger of Wendover was writing a decade later and with a particular interest in exaggerating the degree to which his own and other monasteries had mustered opposition to the king. In reality, our first certain proof that Henry I’s coronation charter was being cited in negotiations between king and barons occurs only at a later stage, with the survival of the so-called ‘Unknown Charter’, a document rediscovered in the French national archives in the 1890s, today one of the best-known ‘unknown’ documents in English history. It consists of a single sheet of parchment on which are written first a copy of Henry I’s coronation charter, undertaking to rule well, and second a series of a dozen or so clauses beginning with the statement ‘King John conceeds that he will arrest no man without judgement nor accept any payment for justice nor commit any unjust act’: in embryo, our first evidence for what was to evolve into the famous clauses 39 and 40 of Magna Carta. The exact date of the ‘Unknown Charter’ is disputed. It most likely records bargaining points raised between king and barons at some stage in 1215. Various of its clauses may already have been under discussion for some time before. For example, its attempt to limit military service overseas to Normandy and Brittany and to limit scutage to one mark per knight’s fee, not subsequently embodied in Magna Carta, seem to refer to the situation of 1213–14 when service was demanded for Flanders and Poitou and when multiple scutages were collected.

Here, as elsewhere, the ‘Unknown Charter’ is more adventurous than Magna Carta. In respect to wards and widows and to the need to ‘disafforest’ all land placed under forest law since 1154, it goes beyond anything subsequently granted in Magna Carta. What is most significant of all is that it treats the new concessions offered by King John quite literally as extensions of privileges already guaranteed by the coronation charter of Henry I, itself claiming merely to restore the good law of Edward the Confessor. In other words, the barons of 1215 believed that good law had once existed and that their duty lay in recalling and restoring it. To this extent, Magna Carta is to be viewed as a deeply conservative, not as a deliberately radical, measure.

Its negotiation was the result of a series of meetings between king and barons, beginning in January 1215, when a council in London merely postponed any further discussion to the following April. Having delayed this April meeting for as long as possible, the king offered to seek arbitration from the pope. From a baronial standpoint, this was no real offer, since the pope would be naturally predisposed to support the king. John, after all, had surrendered the realm of England to papal sovereignty. Moreover, no pope could accept a settlement extracted from a reluctant king, God’s anointed, under threat of violence and rebellion. It was a principle deeply embedded in canon as in civil law that a settlement obtained under duress was no true contract. Instead, when the barons gathered at Brackley in May 1215, they opened hostilities by repudiating their homage to King John. Their choice of Brackley as meeting place is significant. Brackley served as one of the chief tournament fields of England, and it was perhaps on the tournament field that the barons had first begun to whisper the need to impose restrictions upon the king. On 12 May, the king ordered the seizure of the barons’ castles. Five days later, fate once more dealt John a crushing blow. Whilst its leading citizens were at Mass, a small group of Londoners, in league with the barons, seized John’s capital and effectively deprived the king of both the chief citadel and treasure house of his realm. Henceforth, the demands of the Londoners were joined to those of the barons. There was now a real prospect that London would serve as a base from which to organize the most disastrous of possibilities: an invitation to the French king to replace the Plantagenet dynasty on the throne of England.

The Londoners had grievances of their own against the king. Their trade had been disrupted by John’s recent wars in Flanders and Poitou. From at least the 1150s, the more adventurous of them had demanded the right to self-government. Indeed, the self-government and chartered privileges of the greater English towns served as yet another model for the sort of chartered liberties that Magna Carta was intended to supply. And not just the towns of England. On Easter Sunday, 19 April 1215, in the midst of the gathering storm, King John issued a charter to the men of the town of Bayonne, on the frontiers between France and Spain, now granted the same privileges as the men of La Rochelle, another of the major southern French ports still in Plantagenet hands. This in effect gave recognition to the government of Bayonne by a commune and council of 100, yet another of those detailed provisions for communal self-government that deserve to be seen as steps on the road to Magna Carta.

As this should remind us, Magna Carta could boast continental as well as English precedents. Many of these emerged from precisely those parts of Spain and southern France where King John had been diplomatically most active in the years before 1215. In 1205, for example, in the midst of a financial crisis provoked by the costs of war, King Pedro II of Aragon drafted but apparently did not grant a charter of liberties for his subjects in Catalonia, promising an end to new or excessive taxes, the appointment of local men as royal officials to administer ‘common justice’ and to preserve the right and custom of the land, such officials only to be appointed ‘with the counsel of magnates and the wise men of that land’. North of the Pyrenees but still within the same jurisprudential orbit, in December 1212, Simon de Montfort, leader of the Albigensian Crusade, had issued the so-called ‘Statute of Pamiers’, the only one of these southern constitutional documents that approaches the scale of the 1215 English Magna Carta, amongst other things forbidding the sale of justice, legislating on the disposition of heirs, marriage portions, and the remarriage of widows, and specifying that the rulers of the new Crusading state of Toulouse and Narbonne were not entitled to service save by grace and at the ruler’s pay. Ten of the eleven opening clauses of the Statute of Pamiers guaranteed the maintenance of ecclesiastical liberties and discipline.

The Statute of Pamiers supplied precedents for King John’s Magna Carta, which deals with just such feudal ‘incidents’ and which itself opens with an undertaking, granted to God, that ‘The English Church be free’. Statutes issued by a papal legate at Bordeaux in 1214, carefully copied into King John’s chancery rolls, state that widows should not be compelled by princes to remarry, a provision directly echoed in Magna Carta, clause 8. In proclaiming the outlawry of Robert fitz Walter and his fellow conspirators, processed via the county court of Essex in 1212–13, the king had been assiduous in respecting the particular customs of the shire, itself a concept dear to the authors of Magna Carta with their demand that respect be shown to customary law (clauses 2, 4, 13, 23, 41, 48, 60). The ‘customs of England’ are again referred to in royal letters as early as 1204, proclaiming as a matter of principle that no under-age ward be summoned to give evidence as to landholding, such pleas being delayed until the ward came of age: principles very close to those enshrined in Magna Carta, clauses 4–5.

This is not to suggest that Magna Carta was simply the adaptation to the particular circumstances of 1215 of legislation already existing in England, France, or Spain. On the contrary, the negotiation of Magna Carta was a complicated business, hammered out between king and barons over the course of weeks or months. These negotiations themselves suggest a sophisticated knowledge of the law and of legal terminology now shared between king and barons, the inevitable consequence of the great leap forwards in English legal practice from the 1170s onwards. To this extent, the search for a single author of Magna Carta is a futile one. There were many people in 1215, both on the royalist and the baronial side, who possessed the requisite legal literacy to dictate its clauses. The ‘Unknown Charter’, for example, although far from an ‘official’ production of the king’s writing office, is already written with the same technical terminology employed in the royal law courts. Not just the coronation charter of Henry I, but the charters of towns and cities, the laws dispensed by the barons in their own manorial or honour courts, the precedents set by legislation in other parts of Europe, the laws of the Church, and the traditions of diplomacy and diplomatic negotiation, all played a part in Magna Carta’s evolution. The appearance in Magna Carta of occasional items of vocabulary derived from Roman imperial law (one such is the Latin ‘delictum’ for the word translated into English as ‘offence’ in Magna Carta, clause 20) is not necessarily to be read as evidence of a desire directly to copy Roman law. Most such words could be found in the Bible as well as in legal textbooks. The frontiers between Roman, Canon, and English common law were not demarcated with anything like the rigour applied in a modern university law faculty. With that magpie cunning for which they are still famed, lawyers and law-makers were prepared to borrow from whatever source of law seemed best suited to circumstance.

This was a society bred up on law, keen to derive legal precedent from whatever authority came most easily to hand. Law supplied protection, albeit flimsy and unreliable protection, against what might otherwise devolve (as in England after 1066, or during Stephen’s reign of the 1140s, or in Normandy after the French conquest of 1204) into a free-for-all scramble for resources governed by little save brute force and the theoretical sovereignty of kings. Law was to society as the mind was to the body: a guiding conscience and a God-given power of reasoning by which irrational animal impulse might be tamed. From the point of view of those seeking to curb royal excess, there was only one major stumbling block. The king remained the principal mouthpiece, and in all practical effect the ultimate organizing intelligence by which law was proclaimed. Whatever God’s intentions, bad kings tended to make bad laws. Whether we regard Magna Carta itself as badly or well drafted, it was a document ultimately made by and issued in the name of the very king whose excesses it was intended to curb.

None of this has prevented historians from singling out Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, as ‘chief architect’ of Magna Carta. We have already found Langton engaged in debates over the obligation of rulers to issue laws and, in the immediate circumstances of 1215, supposedly involved in the rediscovery of Henry I’s coronation charter as a precedent for the terms now to be forced upon King John. In 1214, Langton issued a detailed set of statutes for the diocese of Canterbury, regulating the behaviour of the clergy but also including legislation targeted at the laity, forbidding the advertisement of rowdy drinking contests or the sale of justice, this last directly echoed in Magna Carta, clauses 36 and 40. Langton’s statutes for Canterbury to some extent provide a ‘Deuteronomy’ (or guidebook) for the Christian faithful.

Nineteenth-century historians were in no doubt that Magna Carta was itself dictated by Langton. Who else but the archbishop, they argued, could have ensured that the charter, rather than protecting the essentially selfish liberties of the barons, was extended (clause 60) from the barons themselves to their own men, ‘both clerk and lay’?

Langton is the first person named after the king in the opening phrases of Magna Carta, as the first of all the king’s ‘faithful subjects’ through whose counsel the charter is said to have been granted. Clause 1 of the charter guarantees (and from this point onwards readers should refer to the text of the 1215 charter translated at the back of this volume) ‘that the English Church be free’, confirming the same ecclesiastical liberties acknowledged at the opening of Henry I’s coronation charter, but in the circumstances of 1215 clearly invoking Langton’s struggles to obtain recognition for the rights of the Church. This struggle is itself directly referred to in the confirmation (again, clause 1) of John’s charter of November 1214 granting freedom of elections to the Church. All of this suggests direct input from Langton.

Yet our evidence here is by no means as clear-cut as 19th-century writers supposed. According to clause 1 of Magna Carta, the charter of free elections for the Church had first been granted of the king’s free will, ‘before the dispute that arose between us and our barons’. This could be read as a cunning attempt to distinguish between those things that Langton had obtained for the Church before 1215, and the circumstances in which Magna Carta itself was negotiated, by inference in the midst of open rebellion and against the king’s free will. In other words, this may be a sign that far from acting as the charter’s midwife, Langton sought to disassociate himself from Magna Carta save in so far as its clauses directly affected the Church. Clause 60, insisting that the liberties granted by the king to his barons be extended from the barons to their own men, far from being invented by Langton, is in effect merely a repetition of similar injunctions already to be found in Henry I’s coronation charter of 1100.

One aspect of Magna Carta may still suggest Langton’s specific influence. As we have seen, from 1212 onwards, the coalition between clerical and baronial opposition led to demands that the king reform his administration. The earliest precise record of these demands, set out in the ‘Unknown Charter’, still envisaged the king’s reforms as an exercise of grace: an award of liberties, granted in the name of the king to his subjects, sealed with the king’s seal, and guaranteed under royal oath. Yet Magna Carta, as issued, goes far beyond this. Although it opens as a royal charter, granted by the king, first to God (as ultimate authority), and then to ‘all free men of our realm’, it ends with a series of provisions that threaten to transform it from an exercise of grace into something more like a contract between king and barons. The barons, although not the king’s equals, are here envisaged as a powerful constituency requiring guarantees beyond mere oaths or promises. There was sound reasoning behind this. Kings in the past had made promises, not least those set out by Henry I in his coronation charter, that they had signally failed to keep. King John was a notorious oath-breaker. Even so, the method adopted by the barons to protect Magna Carta against the king was most unusual. Besides the opening clause, granted to God (the traditional beneficiary of royal coronation charters and of charters bestowing favour upon churches or monasteries, from whom no king would dare take back concessions once made), the charter includes detailed provisions for a group of twenty-five barons who (according to clause 61, the so-called ‘security’ clause of the charter) ‘with all their might are to observe, maintain and cause to be observed the peace and liberties (hereby) granted’.

This baronial ‘committee’ of twenty-five is first mentioned in negotiations in June 1215, when it is included in the so-called ‘Articles of the Barons’, a draft schedule of terms, very close to the final form in which Magna Carta was issued, written in an official-looking hand and sealed with the king’s seal, headed ‘These are the chapters which the barons seek and the King grants’. Both the ‘Articles’ and Magna Carta, clause 61, envisage the twenty-five barons as a deterrent force, so that if the king withdrew any of his concessions or broke any of his promises, the twenty-five might take up arms against him, seize his resources, and force him to obey the terms of the charter, using all means short of actual physical violence against him or his family. It is here that the truly radical nature of Magna Carta emerges. This was to be a peace treaty between king and barons. It was nonetheless a treaty negotiated under the extraordinary understanding that in future the barons would be permitted to make war on their king whenever they judged that the king had breached fundamental principles of the contract hereby made. It is this, above all else, that affords Magna Carta its status as the first attempt to limit the previously limitless sovereignty of kings.

Where did this idea come from, and why the number twenty-five? It has long been recognized that twenty-five, as an odd number, supplied a guarantee against split voting. Yet twenty-five is also a highly significant number in the Bible. It is, for example, the age from which God instruced Moses to permit the Levites to be consecrated to God’s service (Numbers 8:24), the age at which many of the kings of Judea came to the throne (in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles), and a number used in calculating the dimensions of the Temple according to the prophet Ezechial. In the context of Magna Carta, and much more significantly, it is also a number that occurs in the standard Latin text of the Gospel of St John (6:19), where it is reported that having witnessed Christ miraculously feeding five thousand people on only five loaves and two fishes, the disciples sailed onto the Sea of Galilee ‘twenty-five or thirty furlongs’ and there saw Christ walking on the waves. Commenting on this passage in his ‘Tractates on John’ (26:6), one of the most popular works of scriptural exegesis preserved in the libraries of medieval Europe, St Augustine had explained that the number twenty-five represents the square of five, which is a number that itself represents the law. There are five books to the Pentateuch, the laws of Moses, just as there were five loaves feeding the five thousand. Twenty-five thus represents the ‘law squared’. To anyone familiar with numerology (the medieval science of numbers), twenty-five was also the number reached by placing Christ at the head of the twelve prophets of the Old Testament combined with the twelve apostles of the New. As a result, it was a number of mystic as well as of practical significance. This may explain not only why it was chosen for the barons of Magna Carta, but again in 1258, when a council of twenty-five consisting of the king and twenty-four barons (twelve of them royalists, twelve of them against the king) was appointed to implement reforms to the government of King John’s son, Henry III. It was chosen again, in the 1340s, when it was the number of knights appointed by King Edward III to his new Order of the Garter, with the king and his twenty-five knights intended to serve as models of chivalric perfection, a new Arthur and his round table dispensing Christlike wisdom and good governance.

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3. The Articles of the Barons

Was it Langton, with his biblical expertise, who first suggested the number twenty-five to the barons of King John? Perhaps not. The idea of a committee of twenty-five already occurs in 1200, when it is reported as the number of men sworn to take counsel with the mayor for the government of the city of London. It was more likely the rebel Londoners, rather than the archbishop of Canterbury, who first proposed the idea for inclusion in Magna Carta. Whoever it was proposed it, the baronial committee of twenty-five was nonetheless the measure above all others that marked a new departure from previous dealings between king and barons. This in itself reflects not just the sophistication of the political and legal negotiations that led to Magna Carta, but the much more visceral terror felt by those taking up arms against the king.

After his inconclusive discussions in January 1215, and his vows as a Crusader in March, John entered negotiations with what he assumed was very much the winning hand. Although civil war was now inevitable, it was a war, in the words of the greatest of its modern historians J. C. Holt, ‘which only the King could win’. Even with twenty-five barons against him, some of them, as with Richard de Clare, earl of Hertford, claiming to command personal retinues of up to 140 knights, the king still possessed vastly superior resources, a majority of English castles now under garrison, a contingent of household knights larger than that of any baron, and the ability not only to call upon the moral assistance of the pope but to summon to his aid mercenaries from Flanders, southern France, or Ireland. Yet what is most remarkable about the drift to civil war in 1215 is its slow pace. The last great rebellion against an English king, in 1173–4, had come like a bolt out of the blue, so swiftly that no-one could explain it save as an act of divine retribution for the murder of Thomas Becket. The precedent set by the war of the 1170s was no doubt in the minds of the barons forty years later. Some indeed had been children in 1173. Although the greatest baronial uprising yet staged, the 1173 rebellion had proved a disaster for its leaders. Its outcome had been a Plantagenet administration far more ruthless than anything seen before. Baronial castles had fallen by the dozen. Earls had been imprisoned, heiresses seized. To step back into the past and once again to take up arms against the king was to risk repeating precisely the mistakes of the 1170s. Hence no doubt the decision of the conspirators of 1212 to be done with such worries and merely to kill the king. Hence the fact that, three years later, the barons of 1215 moved so slowly. King John had an evil reputation. His reign had been scarred by hostage-taking, allegations of rape, and the murder of prisoners. He seemed to operate outside the norms of chivalric behaviour. After 1204, his administration, much of it imported from France, had introduced the bitterness of twenty years of fighting in Normandy to what had previously been the warless English shires. John’s misdeeds provoked baronial rebellion, but they also gave warning of the likely consequences to the rebels should rebellion fail.

At Brackley in early May, the barons threw off their homage to King John by a process known as ‘diffidation’, crucial in the medieval distinction between peace and war. No vassal could make war on his lord without committing treason, itself punishable by death. By publicly repudiating his vassal status, a disgruntled inferior could rebel without treason, being judged henceforth according to the customs of war. As this suggests, the potential consequences of failed rebellion still haunted the barons and inclined them towards negotiated peace. Even so, it was not until the seizure of London on 17 May, and the consequent threat that the barons would use London to summon the king of France to their aid, that John was persuaded to enter seriously into negotiations. Magna Carta, issued at Runnymede in June 1215, half way between the king’s castle at Windsor and the rebel base in London, was a last attempt to restore peace. To both sides, war risked the most severe of consequences. To the king, the very survival of his dynasty seemed threatened. Unjust kings, as the Bible made only too plain, risked losing their thrones, especially if their subjects made common cause with foreign powers, with the Philistines in the case of King Saul, or the French in the case of King John. To the barons, by contrast, the chief risk was that they would be overwhelmed by the king’s superior forces. In 1212, at the beginning of their troubles, various barons had plotted simply to murder John and to place their own candidate on the throne. Three years later, all they could manage was a compromise, an attempt at a peace treaty with a sovereign no longer respected but greatly feared: a king whose past promises to compromise had proved as fleeting as snow in May. Magna Carta was first and foremost a peace treaty. As a peace treaty, it entirely failed.

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