The document we call Magna Carta is both a restatement of the “good old” laws of the English past and a treaty of peace between the English and their king (and the Christian Church).

John was a Plantagenet, an ancient line from Angers on the Loire with a history of conquest and plunder, connected to the English throne by the marriage of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. When Henry I died, Stephen reigned. His heir died and after some dealings involving Matilda he recognised Henry II as King. In 1154 he inherited a system of law from his grandfather, Henry I, which he set about changing while quarrelling with Thomas Becket. Becket’s murder in 1170 did not play well for Henry II or his line and it aided in the revitalising of the Coronation Charter of Henry I. Becket had called for the “liberty” [see below] of the English Church which inspired others to seek to have their liberties also enforced against a tyrannical King. For the time, however, the King held sway.

From the time of the Assize of Clarendon (1166) while Becket was in exile, Henry II set about reforming the criminal law especially. He provided for juries to report suspected robbers or murderers who would be detained by sheriffs for trial before local law officers. Gaols were built. Exile and outlawry were decreed for notorious criminals. Other laws were enacted that created a flood of litigation and Henry II had to employ additional judges and officials to deal with it. By the 1170s there were professional courts, centred on Westminster but travelling on circuit. Knights and local landowners were drawn into law enforcement, but before long inequities appeared and by the time of Becket’s murder in 1170 resentment was strong. In 1173 a rebellion broke out and was put down the following year. The King then tackled more strongly the powers of local lords and assumed greater control over the administration of both criminal and civil justice. Henry II was viewed by a significant segment of the population as a tyrant.

One chronicler, Ralph Niger, claimed in very strong terms that Henry II deliberately delayed judgments so that justice could be bought and sold (cf Chapter 40 of the Magna Carta 1215). He promoted serfs and soldiers as officials. He debased the monasteries and debauched the wives and daughters of barons. He overruled the old laws, set aside “liberties”, legislated scandalously for royal dominion in the forests, supported the usury of the Jews, ordained barbaric punishments and so on. All this certainly served to increase the power of the king – and these criticisms herald some of the clauses of Magna Carta.

If Henry II was a tyrant, he was nonetheless effective in government. England expanded and prospered. By contrast, his youngest son John was a tyrant with no redeeming qualities. He was 4 cruel and contemptuous and he came after his elder brother, Richard (who died without heir), had bled the country for his own gain (including his ransom paid to Germany of billions of pounds in today’s money).

John was crowned in May 1199 and in the next five years piled catastrophe upon catastrophe at both personal and national level (losing most of his territory in France, among other things). He routinely abused the law and his subjects; but because the law was regarded as being there to serve the monarch, little could be formally done. After losing Normandy in 1204 King John was obliged to stay in England and among the barons, where propinquity bred contempt. From 1205 he also challenged the Church, seeking to have his own candidate elected Archbishop of Canterbury. He lost that contest and Stephen Langton, a staunch Becket supporter, was consecrated by the Pope in 1207 but was obliged to live in France. King John refused to recognise him and eventually in 1212 Pope Innocent III excommunicated England and the royal court. From 1208 to 1214 the services of the English Church were suspended and the populace was adversely affected in various ways. John retaliated by expropriating what he could from the Church and bled the barons to build a war chest to retake his French territories. The Pope was rumoured to be plotting to depose King John and put a Frenchman on the throne. Some barons were discovered plotting John’s death and fled to France. A powerful group, English and French, baronial and ecclesiastical, grew around Stephen Langton in exile in France in 1213 where the Coronation Charter of Henry I from 1100 was invoked. A French invasion loomed.

King John (having none of the diplomatic talents of his father) capitulated in 1213. In order to gain protection from France, he surrendered England and Ireland to the Pope as a papal fiefdom, promising a perpetual annual rent (of the equivalent of one million pounds in today’s money). In 1214 he attempted to re-establish a foothold in northern France, but was defeated. The English churchmen feared Papal interference in their English church (in 1215 the election of Stephen’s brother Simon as Archbishop of York was to be quashed by the Pope). Langton returned to England and preached against King John’s moves and seizures of church properties. As noted, in 1213 Langton had rediscovered the Coronation Charter of Henry I and, although not enjoying the trust of the barons, became pivotal to the development of the Magna Carta.

London merchants, too, had suffered under John. The King had been accustomed to seize French and other foreign ships in English ports to ward off invasion. The French retaliated. Commerce was thwarted. Money was lost.

Late in 1214 the circulation of Henry I’s Coronation Charter led to King John’s issuing a charter of liberties for the English Church, but it was not enough. Barons and churchmen were meeting at various places and a group of barons known as the “Northerners” emerged. It was this political movement that forced King John to Runnymede. The alternative was his deposition or death. The document was sealed under duress.