Story of England - S. B. Harding

King John and the Great Charter


Why John was made a King instead of Arthur; his character; how his tyranny was a good thing for England.

On what charge John was condemned to lose his French territories; what crime committed by John aided Philip; why the French could not take Aquitaine; how the loss of Normandy was a good thing.

The quarrel between John and the Pope; how the Pope sought to punish John; the terms on which John made peace with the Church.

Why the Barons rebelled against John; what caused the rebellion to succeed; where and when the Great Charter was signed; its chief provisions.

Why the barons rebelled a second time; the aid which they have; the circumstances of John's death; why the Barons abandoned the French Prince.

Richard's younger brother John, who had caused him so much trouble during his absence on the Crusade, succeeded him as King of England and ruler of the English possessions in France. Another brother, named Geoffrey, who was older than John, had died, leaving a son, Arthur, who was now ten years old. According to the rules which today govern the succession to crowns, Arthur had a better right to the throne than John had; but the nobles of England, acting on Richard's recommendation, chose John, who was a man of full age, in preference to Arthur, who was but a boy.

Long before John's reign was over, every class in the Kingdom had cause to repent that choice. King John proved to be one of the worst rulers that England ever had,—cruel, faithless, lazy, and reckless of everything save his own pleasure. Yet his very wickedness and tyranny, by spurring all classes to resistance, helped much to bring about political liberty, and to make such tyranny impossible for the future.

First, you must know, within five years John lost the greater part of the English possessions in France, including Normandy, the home-land of William the Conqueror.

Ever since the Norman dukes had ruled England, the kings of France had seized every opportunity of stirring up trouble in the English royal family, in order to weaken these powerful vassals of theirs. Philip Augustus now aided young Arthur in attacking the French possessions of his uncle John. Also, John had injured one of his own vassals in Aquitaine, by seizing and carrying off his promised bride, whom John married; and this vassal carried his grievance to King Philip, who was John's overlord in Aquitaine. Philip summoned John to appear before his court, and defend himself; and when John refused, judgment was given against him and he was condemned to lose his possessions in France. The judgment was strictly according to feudal law; and with the law now on his side, King Philip set about conquering John's fiefs.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Money of King John's Reign

In the course of this war, Arthur was captured and imprisoned by John, and soon mysteriously disappeared. There can be no doubt that he was put to death, and ugly rumors whispered that John had done the wicked deed with his own hands. On every side John's vassals and followers deserted him, and Philip made rapid gains.

"Let him go on," boasted John, while doing nothing to prevent this. "Whatever he takes, I shall retake it in a single day."

This was easier said than done. At last the "Saucy Castle," built by Richard with so much pains and expense, was taken, and all Normandy passed into the hands of the French. Most of Aquitaine, which lay south of the river Loire, remained true to English rule—not because of any love for John, but because the nobles dreaded to lose their independent position if their lands were annexed to the French crown, and because of loyalty to John's mother, Eleanor, their old mistress.

The loss of Normandy seemed to the English people of that day a great disaster; but we can see now that it was a good thing for England, as well as for France. The descendants of the conquering Normans and of the conquered English had for many years been growing more and more alike, and more and more ready to act together in all that concerned the kingdom. The people in the reign of Henry II. and of Richard had been allowed to carry on their local governments according to ancient usage. London, and many other towns also, had received charters from the king which permitted them to manage their own affairs, and as a result the townsmen had become self-reliant, and interested in public matters. Now that the Norman barons were obliged to give up their lands in France, they looked upon themselves as Englishmen. Thus, when the loss of his Norman possessions compelled the King to give his attention solely to England, he found the nobles and the common people ready to act together for the interests of the whole country.

Soon after John's return to England, the Archbishop of Canterbury died, and for nearly eight years afterward John engaged in a great quarrel with the Pope over the filling of the vacancy.

The monks of Canterbury had the right to choose the archbishop, but it had been the custom for the King to name the man whom the monks should elect. On this occasion the monks, without consulting John, elected one of their own number and sent him to Rome to be confirmed by the Pope. When John learned what had been done, he compelled the monks to elect another man, a favorite of his own, who also went to Rome and appealed to the Pope. After considering the matter for a year, the Pope declared that neither candidate had been properly elected; and he then consecrated as archbishop a clergyman at Rome named Stephen Langton, who was learned, able, and of English birth.

No better choice could have been made, but King John was furious at the Pope's action. He refused to allow Langton to enter England, and he seized the lands and revenues of the archbishopric. To punish the King, the Pope placed an "interdict" upon the whole kingdom,—that is, he forbade all church services except the baptism of infants and the "last unction" or anointing of the dying. The church doors remained closed; the bells were silent; even the dead were buried without ceremony, in unhallowed ground.

John took no heed, save to drive from the land the bishops who proclaimed the interdict and to seize their lands. Then the Pope "excommunicated" the King—that is, declared him to be cut off from all connection with the Church, and all hope of heaven. Still John refused to submit. At last the Pope declared John deposed from his throne, released his English subjects from all duty to him, and gave Philip of France authority to take possession of the English kingdom.

Philip prepared to invade England, and John also collected troops. But John distrusted his barons, and when the war was about to begin he suddenly yielded to the Pope's demands. Stephen Langton was permitted to take up his duties as archbishop, and John promised to restore the lands and moneys which he had taken from the Church. In addition, he surrendered his kingdom to the Pope and received it again as a fief, agreeing to pay a yearly tribute. Thus, the second great struggle was ended by the King of England becoming the Pope's vassal. The interdict and the excommunication were removed, and Philip was forbidden to proceed with his expedition.

When the quarrel with the Pope was settled, John was in the midst of a third great struggle,—this time with his own barons, who wished a remedy for the evils of his rule.

The King was constantly making new demands upon both the nobles and the people. He had called upon them for services which they did not think they ought to render, and he had levied taxes unknown in earlier times. In some cases he cast men into prison without law, and in others he unjustly seized their lands and goods. In many ways, King John outraged the rights of his people, so that all classes were ready to rebel.

The barons found a shrewd adviser in Stephen Langton, the new archbishop. He reminded them of the charter in which Henry I. had promised reforms of government to the nation, and told the barons to demand a similar charter from King John.

While John was waging war on the Continent, seeking vainly to recover his lost dominions, the leading barons secretly met together, under pretext of a pilgrimage, and swore to compel the King to restore the liberties of the realm, and to confirm them by a charter. Their demands were presented to John, upon his return; but the King cried out in wrath:

"Why do they not ask for my kingdom? I will never grant such liberties as will make me a slave."

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Portion of the Great Charter

In various ways, John sought to break up the forces that confronted him; but all in vain. "The army of God and of Holy Church," as the rebels called themselves, marched upon London, and the citizens joyously opened the city gates to them.

On June 15, in the year 1215, John met the representatives of the barons "in the meadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines," on the river Thames. Here he was forced to sign the Great Charter,—called Magna Charta  in Latin, the language in which it was written. It set forth the rights of all the people, including churchmen, nobles and townsmen. Since that day, the Charter has been repeatedly confirmed, and now stands as part of the foundation of English law. Its principles are part of the constitution of every English-speaking nation. Among many important provisions these two are chief:

"No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him, nor will we send upon him, except by lawful judgment of his peers, and by the law of the land."

"To no one will we sell—to no one will we deny—right or justice."

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

John Granting the Charter

In these provisions the King admitted that he had no right to imprison or punish any man except according to law; he agreed that he would no longer take a man's liberty or goods merely by his own will.

It is said that when King John signed the Charter he wore a smiling countenance, and spoke pleasantly to the lords about him; but that when he reached his own chamber he threw himself down in a mad rage upon the ground, gnashing his teeth and biting the rushes with which it was strewn.

John had no intention of keeping his promises, and war soon began again. The King had the support of hired troops, chiefly from France; and the Pope, who was now his overlord, gave him such help as he could. The barons, for their part, called upon Louis, son of King Phillip of France, to come to their aid, and offered him the English crown. Louis came with a large army, and for a time the barons were successful.

Then John's fortunes began to brighten, and it seemed as if he might overcome his enemies after all, and again set up his will as law. But, in crossing an arm of the sea, his army was surprised by the tide, and his baggage, with the royal treasure, was washed away.

A fever then seized John, and he died in a few days. Men said his illness would not have been fatal had he not made it worse by eating heartily of unripe peaches. His death occurred in the fall of the year 1216. John's son, Henry III., a nine year old boy, succeeded him on the throne, and Prince Louis soon withdrew his forces to France. The barons had fought only against the tyranny of King John, and they would not support the French Prince against their own young King.


  1. Review the history of the connection of Normandy with England.
  2. Find out what other kingdoms besides England were held as fiefs from the Pope. What does this show concerning the power of the Pope.
  3. Read further on events leading up to the granting of the Great Charter.
  4. Write a brief account of the importance of the Great Charter.