magna carta

Getting King John To Sign Magna Carta Was Only Half The Battle

The very day King John pledged to uphold Magna Carta, June 20, 1215, he asked Pope Innocent III to annul it.  The pope replied, “We utterly reject and condemn this settlement and under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe it and that the barons and their associates should not require it to be observed.”

So, John reneged on his agreement with the barons, they rebelled and formed an alliance with King Philip II of France who prepared to invade England.  Before long, the French Prince Louis entered London, and the French controlled castles throughout England.  The English Church, however, backed John and refused to crown Lewis as England’s king. 

John fled from his pursuers, but somewhere along the line he contracted dysentery and was dying.  He appointed 13 executors including William Marshal who was among the most revered knights in England.  John died on October 19, 1216,  and his nine-year-old son was hastily crowned Henry III.  Because he was under-age, Marshal formed a regency government.  Although Marshal was able to seize an important English castle from the French, the civil war was substantially stalemated.

With John gone, the rebel barons found themselves in an awkward position – their alliance with foreigners who occupied England.  Patriotic English wanted to get the French out.  Fortunately, Prince Louis was happy to collect a bribe, and soon the French went home.

Regent Marshal recognized that there was more likely to be domestic peace if some fundamental legal issues were resolved and that consequently John’s repudiation of Magna Carta must be reversed.   So Marshal reviewed the document, made some cuts, and reissued Magna Carta in late 1216.   Among the cuts was paragraph 61 about the committee of 25 barons who would monitor the king’s compliance with Magna Carta and, if necessary, try to enforce it.  Perhaps less important than those words was the fact that the barons had demonstrated their willingness to use force against a tyrannical king.

Magna Carta Day

The liberties we Americans enjoy were hard-won over the centuries. Today we mark a major event in that struggle, the day in 1215 when English barons presented King John with a written list of rights they demanded he recognize. Known ultimately as Magna Carta, the Great Charter, it was a compact between the barons and their king, a political effort by subjects to secure their liberty by placing their ruler under the rule of law, thus limiting arbitrary power.

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