History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetite. — Edmund Burke

Story of the English - Helene Guerber

The Great Charter

Now, although the English had no respect for John, they did not want to give up their country to the French king, so they began to rally around their monarch to help him defend the country. The pope then offered to forbid Philip to invade England, provided John would let Stephen Langton be Archbishop of Canterbury, do homage to the pope for the kingdom of England, and promise to pay a yearly tribute.

Promises were very easy to make, according to John's ideas; so he consented to everything. He made Langton archbishop, humbly laid his crown at the feet of the legate (the pope's messenger), allowed him to trample it without wincing, and received it from his hand once more, after solemnly promising to be the faithful vassal of the pope.

The interdict was recalled, Philip was forbidden to invade England, and John fancied that all was well. But the English barons were disgusted with him for having yielded to such shameful conditions. They had always prided themselves upon living in a free country, and they did not like to be considered the vassals of the pope. Besides, they were indignant at the way in which John governed, and at his methods for getting always more money, for you must know that John was as miserly as he was untruthful.

Whenever John heard that a Jew had become very rich by trading, he used to send for the unfortunate man and torture him until he promised to pay a large sum of money for his release. We are told that he imprisoned one wealthy Jew, and had one of his teeth pulled out every day. At first the man stood this very bravely, but when seven teeth were gone, he gladly paid a large sum to keep the rest and be set free.

The example set by the king was followed by the barons; and as a customary mode of torture was to drag the Jews over a bed of red-hot coals to make them give up their money, some people say that it gave rise to the expression "to haul over the coals," which is now often used to describe a severe and unsparing reprimand.

John, angry with Philip for taking Normandy and for being so ready to invade England, made an alliance with the Emperor of Germany and the Count of Flanders, and attacked France. But the English and their allies were defeated in the battle of Bouvines, in 1214.

Battle of Bouvines

During John's absence, changes had been going on in England. First, the new primate, Langton, made some alterations in religious matters, besides dividing the Bible into chapters and verses as it is now. Then the barons found the charter granted by Stephen and Henry, and decided that its promises ought to be kept, and that their rights ought to be protected by a few more laws.

The result of this was that the barons drew up a new code or set of laws, called the Magna Charta, or Great Charter, in which the rights of the king and of all the different classes of the people were clearly set forth; and when John came home, after the battle of Bouvines, they asked him to sign it.

The king angrily refused, whereupon all the barons left him and threatened to choose another king. Left with only seven followers, John concluded he must yield; so, going out to meet the revolted barons on Runnymede (a meadow where the Saxons had often assembled), he reluctantly signed the Magna Charta, in 1215.

This code of laws is considered the foundation of English liberty, and has been very carefully preserved. It decreed, among many other things, that no man should be imprisoned unless he were tried and found guilty, and that girls of noble rank might marry without the king's consent.

From Runnymede John retired to the Isle of Wight, whence he sent a messenger to the pope, with a copy of the charter, a long letter of complaint against the barons, and a request to be freed from his promise, which he said had been wrung from him by force. The pope, knowing many of the barons were against him, sent a bull, or papal decree, excommunicating the noblemen and saying that John need not keep any of the promises he had made to his rebellious subjects.

King John

This bull made the barons so angry that they vowed to fight for their rights. Some called a French prince into the country, offered him the crown, and hailed him as king in London. Others refused to accept him, and in the midst of the civil war which ensued, the last remnants of John's army deserted him, and his baggage and all his treasures were swept away by the rising tide as he was crossing the Wash.

John himself barely escaped sharing the fate of his money, and he felt so badly over his loss that he rode on to a priory, where he fell ill and died. Some people say that he died of grief, others that he ate too many peaches and pears and drank too much cider, but a few declare that the prior poisoned him by order of the barons.

Although John was only forty-nine years old, the English were glad to be rid of him. They did not respect a king who, besides being mean and selfish, was always untruthful, and they gladly hailed as monarch his little son Henry, who was then only eight or nine years old.


Front Matter

Early Times
The Druids
The Britons
Caesar in Britain
Queen Boadicea
The Great Walls
The Great Irish Saint
The Anglo-Saxons
Brave King Arthur
The Laws of the Saxons
The Story of St Augustine
Three Great Men
The Danish Pirates
King Alfred and the Cakes
Alfred conquers the Danes
A King's Narrow Escape
The King and the Outlaw
The Monasteries
An Unlucky Couple
St Dunstan
King Canute and the Waves
A Saxon Nobleman
Lady Godiva's Ride
The Battle of Hastings
The Conquest
Lords and Vassals
Death of William
The Brothers' Quarrels
Arms and Armour
The "White Ship"
Matilda's Narrow Escapes
Story of Fair Rosamond
Thomas a Becket
Murder of Thomas a Becket
Richard's Adventures
Richard and the Saracens
The Faithful Minstrel
Death of Richard
The Murder of Arthur
The Great Charter
The Rule of Henry III
A Race
Persecution of the Jews
The Conquest of Wales
A Quarrel with France
The Coronation Stone
The Insolent Favourite
Bruce and the Spider
Death of Edward II
The Murderers punished
The Battle of Crecy
The Siege of Calais
The Age of Chivalry
The Battle of Poitiers
The Peasants' Revolt
Richard's Presence of Mind
A Tiny Queen
Henry's Troubles
Madcap Harry
A Glorious Reign
The Maid of Orleans
The War of the Roses
The Queen and the Brigand
The Triumph of the Yorks
The Princes in the Tower
Richard's Punishment
Two Pretenders
A Grasping King
Field of the Cloth of Gold
The New Opinions
Death of Wolsey
Henry's Wives
The King and the Painter
A Boy King
Lady Jane Grey
The Death of Cranmer
A Clever Queen
Elizabeth's Lovers
Mary, Queen of Scots
Captivity of Mary Stuart
Wreck of the Spanish Armada
The Elizabethan Age
Death of Elizabeth
A Scotch King
The Gunpowder Plot
Sir Walter Raleigh
King and Parliament
Cavaliers and Roundheads
The Royal Oak
The Commonwealth
The Restoration
Plague and Fire
The Merry Monarch
James driven out of England
A Terrible Massacre
William's Wars
The Duke of Marlborough
The Taking of Gibraltar
The South Sea Bubble
Bonny Prince Charlie
Black Hole of Calcutta
Loss of the Colonies
The Battle of the Nile
Nelson's Last Signal
The Battle of Waterloo
First Gentleman of Europe
Childhood of Queen Victoria
The Queen's Marriage
Wars in Victoria's Reign
The Jubilee