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King John and the Magna Carta

John became King in 1199 when his brother, King Richard I, died. To many John was cruel, greedy and ultimately a failure as King. He fell out with both his father and his brother in family feuds.

He argued with his nephew, Arthur, over succession. This trouble led to the loss of English territory in France in 1205. King John unsuccessfully attempted to regain France for the rest of his reign. He kept raising taxes to pay for his campaigns, but every time he went to France to fight, he lost.

When he came to the throne, his reign was full of trouble. After a quarrel with the church England was placed under an interdict in 1207, and King John was excommunicated in 1209. John had refused to go along with the Pope's choice as Archbishop of Canterbury.

By 1215, the nobility of England had enough of paying extra taxation. The discontented barons rebelled and captured London in May 1215. In June, the King met these barons to try and reach a peaceful settlement. The meeting took place at Runnymede on the river Thames. The King agreed to their demands by signing a document known as the Magna Carta - Latin for 'Great Charter'. It was amended and reissued with alterations in 1216, 1217, and 1225.

Magna Carta from 1225
1225 version of the Magna Carta

Many people see the Magna Carta as a vital piece of English history where the rights of individuals are protected against the power of the King or Queen. At the time, the agreement was merely King John's was of obtaining peace between him and his rebellious barons. 

Important points that the Magna Carta covered were:

"The Church is free to make its own appointments."

Meaning: The Church had the final say who was appointed to Church positions of power.

"No more than the normal amounts of money can be collected to run the government, unless the king's feudal tenants give their consent."

Meaning: The King was not allowed to demand more and more money from his nobility.

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions... except by the lawful judgement of his peers."

Meaning: Everyone has the right to a fair trial.

King John signed the document to keep peace with the rebel barons - to buy time - and did not keep to what he agreed to. Civil war thus broke out in England. The nobility called on the French to invade. John proved himself an able soldier, but died in October 1216, leaving a divided country - still occupied with French invaders - to his nine year old son, King Henry III.

King John was not a total failure. Recent historians have praised his administrative skills and his success on military campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. However, his loss of France together with the mess he left England in mean that King John will always be seen as one of the least successful rulers of England.
Page updated Sunday, August 19, 2007

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