RUNNYMEDE: PRELUDE AND AFTERMATH -Address by The Most Reverend James Parker Dees, to the North Carolina Chapter, Dames of Magna Carta, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 19 March 1983
…The hostility between the landed gentry and the royal authority increased through the years, through William I’s reign and through his son William II’s reign; until when he was succeeded by Henry I in the year 1100, the landed gentry, the Barons and other nobles, succeeded in procuring a charter which was a significant forerunner to the Charter of 1215. In order to secure his position on the throne, Henry I in 1100 granted the landed gentry a charter which secured their support for the new king himself. This charter of Henry I is extremely important, not merely as a direct precedent for the Great Charter of John, but as the first limitation on the despotism established by William the Conqueror and carried to such a height by his son, Rufus, William II. The “evil customs” by which the “Red King,” Rufus, had enslaved and plundered the church were explicitly renounced in this charter, the unlimited demands made by both the Conqueror and his son on the baronage were exchanged for customary fees, while the rights of the people themselves were not forgotten. The barons were ordered to do justice to their under-tenants and to renounce tyrannical exactions from them, and the king in turn promising to restore order and the “law of Edward,” the old constitution of the realm, of Edward the Confessor.
We move on now to the next century, the 1200s, the century of the Magna Carta. Many events of interest preceded the immediate signing of the charter. John, the youngest son of Henry II, was given the oath of fealty by the Barons in 1199.
Early in the century in 1207, King John forfeited the support of the Roman Church by refusing to accept the appointment by Pope Innocent III of Stephen Langton to serve the Church in England as the Archbishop of Canterbury; and as a result the Pope placed England under a papal interdict, in 1208, which allowed no religious services in England and in 1209 the Pope excommunicated John himself.
John began to find himself in trouble. Faced with demands at home from his barons for justice in taxation and for proper treatment in the courts, he was faced also with threats of war from abroad. He sensed the need of help from the church, and so he began to seek reconciliation with it.
And so in 1213-1214, John resigned to the Pope his kingdoms of England and Ireland and received them back again from the Pope in exchange for his vow of allegiance to the Pope and for an annual payment of 1000 marks. Stephen Langton was received as papal legate, Archbishop of Canterbury, who absolved John from excommunication and reinstated him in the church. Thus John secured important new sources of support in the Pope and in the clergy.
The proposal from the barons to secure a charter of liberties was first put forward to John in July of 1213. In August “his honesty of purpose” was questioned. More specific guarantees for his future conduct were sought. At a meeting in St. Paul’s on August 25, 1213 Stephen Langton, the restored Archbishop of Canterbury, proposed that the King should be asked to confirm or reissue the charter of liberties granted by Henry I in 1100, which contained grantings of freedom of the sort now being demanded. At this point all present swore that when the opportune moment arose, they would fight to the death to secure such a charter.
At this point John planned a campaign of arms in France, and made fresh demands on the knights for more men and money. The opposition to these demands was fierce. His campaign was not successful. John continued to make his demands and the barons continued to resist. The barons continued to make their demands for a charter recognizing their rights. John continued to put them off or circumvent in one way or another, for one reason or another, giving them no definite answer. While he was staying at the Temple, in London, in January 1215, a party of barons appeared before him, arrayed in full armour, and presented the demands–by this time more elaborately conceived–for a charter that should confirm the ancient liberties of the kingdom, as set out in Edward the Confessor’s laws, in the coronation charter of Henry I, and in the coronation oath renewed by John himself, just eighteen months beforehand. To these demands John succeeded, with some difficulty, in deferring an answer to a meeting at Northampton on the Sunday after Easter–26 April–on the grounds that the matter was too complex for immediate reply. Meanwhile he at once dispatched envoys to Rome to apprise his overlord, the Pope, of the situation. He also began to marshall his resources for a trial of strength. Among other preparatory measures, on 4 March he took the Cross as a crusader, a step that secured for his person and his possessions the Church’s most special protection.
In Holy Week 1215, ten days before the date appointed by John for the delivery of his answer, the storm finally broke. On May 5th the barons formally renounced their allegiance to John. The angry barons came together at Stamford, in Lincolnshire and moved forward to force the king’s hand. Proposals and counter proposals were made and rejected. On May 17 the barons captured London, which strengthened considerably their position. In the meantime less conspicuous negotiations seem to have been taking place between Langton and the Earl of Pembroke. And to the influence of these intermediaries should probably be given credit for the eventual meeting between the king and the barons on the field of Runnymede on June 15, 1215 to work out their differences and to finally get John’s signature on their charter.
John signed the Charter on the field of Runnymede by the River Thames, by Windsor Castle, between Windsor and Staines.
Magna Carta has come to be regarded Englishmen, and by all who have adopted English laws, as their chief constitutional defense against arbitrary or unjust rule. Its two most famous clauses (39 & 40) express and give warranty to some of the Englishman’s most deeply held political beliefs. They read: No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. In these and other clauses, seventeenth-century lawyers were to find a basis for such fundamental English privileges and rights as trial by jury, Habeas Corpus, equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and parliamentary control of taxation. For such reasons Magna Carta could be described by William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, in 1770 as forming with the Petition of Right (1629) and the Bill of Rights (1689), the Bible of the English Constitution.
Besides the many rights and privileges accorded to the barons by the Charter, of special significance is the establishment of the Council of Barons to protect the barons and citizens generally from encroachments of the rights specified in the charter and from harrassment by John. Paragraph 61 of the Charter reads: “SINCE WE HAVE GRANTED ALL THESE THINGS FOR GOD, for the better ordering of our kingdom, and to allay the discord that has arisen between us and our barons, and since we desire that they shall be enjoyed in their entirety, with lasting strength, for ever, we give and grant to the barons the following security: The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter .If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us–or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice–to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.”
The Council of Barons evolved ultimately into the British Parliament. The Magna Carta has received much praise for what it ultimately accomplished. Sir Edward Coke finds in Magna Carta a full and proper legal answer of every exaction of the Stuart Kings, and a remedy for every evil suffered at the time. Sir William Blackstone is almost equally admiring. Edmund Burke says, “Magna Carta, if it did not give us originally the House of Commons, gave us at least a House of Commons of weight and excellence.” More modern historians speak in the highest terms of the importance of Magna Carta summing up their evaluation of it with the observation: “The whole of the constitutional history of England is a commentary of this charter.” Magna Carta represents a treaty of peace imposed upon King John by barons who had rebelled against him for reasons that the charter’s terms themselves make clear. His financial demands in aid of his foreign wars were held to be oppressive; the methods by which taxation was assessed and collected were arbitrary and extortionate; reprisals against defaulters were ruthless and brutal; for wrongs suffered there was no redress. For these abuses a remedy was sought, and since it was by charters that medieval kings customarily made their most solemn and binding grants to their subjects, it was through a charter that men thought that an effective remedy might be found. But signing of the charter at Runnymede was not the ending of the war of the Barons for their rights. It was a significant point in establishing a new beginning for it.
John had no intention of abiding by the Charter, and it was apparent that “No securities could bind him.” Even before Magna Carta was signed, he had set to work to destroy it, and he now turned to this task with renewed vigor. He appealed to the Pope and hoped to crush his enemies with foreign troops, while the barons themselves prepared for war, and the prelates strove to keep the peace. On the 24th of August 1215, less than two months after the signing, Pope Innocent III published a bill which declared Magna Carta null and void, since he said it had been extorted from the King by force. He followed this up by excommunicating the barons who had obtained it, and in the autumn of 1215 the inevitable war began. John achieved some successes, and the barons asked the French for help. At this point, “The aim of the barons was no longer to secure an agreement with John, to get him to agree to the Charter, but to achieve his destruction.” In the midst of these warring factions, one writer says that “The Charter of Runnymede seemed likely to pass into the limbo of forgotten things. John died unexpectedly in October 1216, at the age of 49, from dysentary brought on, it was said, by too much of peaches and new cider. He died at Newark, and was buried in Worcester Cathedral.”
His successor, Henry III, was no more inclined to abide by the Charter than was King John, but he thought it expedient to accept it two weeks after his coronation and after it had been re-edited, somewhat to meet the changed circumstances with him king. This time it was re-edited and issued with the Pope’s approval. It was revised and re-issued again in 1217, and again in 1225, each time after more controversy between the barons and the king. The rights given the people and barons were continually fought over and demanded and denied and reissued throughout the reign of Henry III, in 1237, 1253, and 1265. J. R. Green in his History of the English People remarks that “Henry had sworn again and again to observe the Charter, and his oath was no sooner taken than it was unscrupulously broken. The barons had secured the freedom of the realm; the secret of their long patience lay in the difficulty of securing its right administration.”
The Earl of Norfolk once refused Henry aid, and Henry said,”I will send reapers and reap your fields for you,”to which the Earl replied, “And I will send you back the heads of your reapers.” Edward I followed Henry to the throne after his death, being recognized by the barons on November 20, 1272. The development of the Charter continues to make history, and the conflicts between the king and the barons over his taxing of his subjects to support his wars continue. “The admission of the burgesses and the knights of the shire to the assembly of 1295 completed the fabric of representative government,” says Green in his history. “The Great Council of the Barons became the Parliament of the Realm. Every order of the state found itself represented in this assembly, and took part in the grant of supplies, the work of legislation, and in the end the control of government.”
But in 1297 the King and the Barons were still battling over their respective rights. The King continued to demand despotically taxes to continue his war with the French in Gascony and northern France, and the nobles as well as the church, were rejecting his demands. The barons drew together and called a meeting for the redress of their grievances. The two greatest of the English nobles, Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, and Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, placed themselves at the head of the opposition. Edward bade them to lead a force to Gascony as his lieutenants while he himself sailed to Flanders. Their departure would have left the Baronage without leaders, and the two earls refused to go on the grounds that they were not bound to do foreign service except in attendance on the King, and they refused to obey his orders. “By God, Sir Earl,” swore the King to the Earl Marshal, “you shall either go or hang!” “By God, Sir King,” was the cool reply, “I will neither go nor hang!” This was in 1297. The King backed down. Edward in 1297 again confirmed the Great Charter in exchange for a grant from the clergy and a subsidy from the Commons. “With one of those sudden revulsions of feeling of which his nature was capable the King stood before his people in Westminster Hall and owned with a burst of tears that he had taken their substance without due warrant of law.” The Great Charter was solemnly confirmed by him in Ghent in November (1297); and formal pardon was issued to the Earls of Hereford and Norfolk.
The Charter is relatively secure from this point on. Freedom must be fought for and won in every generation. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It is bought with courage, and it is maintained with courage and frequently with blood-letting. The Charter of English freedom finds its roots in the Charter of Henry I in 1100,whose roots went back much earlier, to Edward the Confessor, at least. The victory of Runnymede in 1215 was not secured until 1297, eighty-two years later, eighty-two years of standing fast by the goals that had been won. Green’s history tells us (pg 372), “The confirmation of the Charter [in 1297], the renunciation of any right to the exactions by which the people were aggrieved, the pledge that the King would no more take ‘such aids, tasks, prizes, but by common assent of the realm,’ the promise not to impose on wool any heavy customs without the same assent, was the close of the great struggle which had begun at Runnymede.”
God had a hand in both these events, in 1215 and in 1297. When John faced the Barons at Runnymede he had just lost battles in France that had decimated his forces, and he did not want to risk an armed encounter with his foes. In 1297 the Scots were poised for battle on the border. “It was Scotland which had won this victory for English freedom,” we read in Green’s history. “At the moment when Edward and the earls stood face to face, the King saw his work in the north suddenly undone.” …