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King John and the Magna Carta

§1 Introduction

The Magna Carta, issued in 1215, was one of the most significant documents in English history establishing the principle that the king and his government was not above the law. This script ensured that those in positions of high responsibility, especially the monarchs, were not to corruptly exploit their power having restricted their jurisdiction. The most influential clauses in the Magna Carta concerned the freedom of the Church; the redress of grievances of owners and tenants of land; the prevention of unjust taxation; trading relationships; regulation of the machinery of justice so that justice can't be denied to anyone; and the requirement to control the behaviour of royal officials.

§2 King John's Background

King John, the son of Henry II, King of England, was the youngest of a family of five and was therefore never expected to inherit any land let alone his father’s kingdom. However, when his elder brothers began to rebel against their father, John began to be favoured by his father. Having been showered with many positions of responsibility, he became a prominent man in England. Three out of his four brothers had died when he had reached adulthood making him a potential heir to the throne.

§3 King John's Unpopularity

When King Richard died in 1199, John succeeded him. King John had a largely successful start to his reign. With war having broken out in 1202, King John asserted his power and dominion defeating his French enemies in most of his first battles. However, by the end of the war, about a year in, he started losing land and soon had to give up all his land in France. From that point onwards his reign became a catastrophic spiral of military and social failures.
Here are the main reasons for which King John was hated:
1. Under his reign, England lost all of its land in Normandy, France.
2. The taxes he set were very high causing outrage throughout the country.
3. He was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church which made him very unpopular as England was Catholic at that point.
4. He murdered his nephew, Arthur, as he feared that he would plot against him.
5. In Eastern England, he lost the crown of jewels in a swamp. Noice.
6. He was disesteemed as he was also a very bad fighter, which was imperative for kings.
All of these flaws in King John and his reign finally gave the barons the motive to rebel and from this rebellion the Magna Carta was born, the first step towards democracy in England.

§4 The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, Latin for the great charter, is one of the first steps England took towards democracy. Magna Carta was a bid by the rebels to declare what they believed as their rights and most especially the rights and power the king was entitled to have. The conspirators, as may be seen in the Magna Carta, were not only showing their disapproval of King John, the rebels also revealed their discontent for the way in which the country was ruled by his predecessors. The Magna Carta was initially propaganda justifying their rebellion rather than a document of law. Having been widely distributed as propaganda, it was soon an acclaimed script which had been translated from Latin to English, for all the common people to understand.

1214 was a disastrous year for king John as he once again was defeated in France trying to claim back his land. Once he arrived back in London, he demanded for even more tax money which was a grave mistake as the barons this time were fed up and did not comply. They rebelled against him. It was traditional to consult the barons and other men of high significance when the king wanted more military support or higher taxes. However, when the king was raising the taxes and taking men from the barons’ estates every year without asking for permission of any sort, the barons no longer yielded and from thence sprung the Magna Carta, the most important political document in English History.

In January, 1215, John met the barons in London after they had started complaining and giving him demands. Having asked for time to consider their offers, he agreed to meet them in Northampton at Easter in order to give them his reply. John, however, did not consider their demands, but began raising a large army and securing protection from the Pope so as to defeat the barons.

When the barons had noticed what king John was plotting, they armed themselves and marched from Stamford to Northampton. The list of demands the barons drew up in Brackley became the basis of Magna Carta. The barons sent an ultimatum to the King: submit to the demands or face a civil war.

John immediately refused to sign these documents as they would greatly limit his power. A war therefore, between the barons and the king, broke out. In a decisive battle in the south, the barons managed to capture London and King John was obliged to negotiate. Later that month, the Magna Carta was finally signed, at Runnymede near Windsor, acting as a peace treaty with the barons.

Thus England had taken its first step towards a democracy as the power of the monarch was now limited. Though John had rejected the document later due to clause 61 which stated that the barons had the power to overthrow the king if he did not follow the laws in the Magna Carta. Civil war ensued until John’s death, on 19th October 1216. The Magna Carta also played a wider role as basic principles are clear in modern documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although the Magna Carta did not quite achieve short-term peace, it has greatly influenced modern laws and is one of the great marking points in English History.

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written by Augustin Robert.