A visit to Windsor and Runnymede the other day made me think about the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta (Great Charter) was issued by King John in 1215 because he was facing a political crisis – to put it bluntly, he’d upset all his barons and they were raising arms against him. He didn’t really have a great deal of choice but to try to appease them. (As it happened, he didn’t stick to the terms, so his troubles were far from over, but I’m jumping ahead of myself.)
I’d always wondered why John chose Runnymede as the spot for the agreement. It turns out that this lovely little place, along the bank of the Thames, was the traditional place for assemblies at the time, but also, it was about half way Windsor castle, the rebels base at Staines. It was neutral ground and did not confer a military advantage on either side. That must have been an important consideration for the barons as King John had a reputation for being somewhat duplicitous.
I hope you’ve all got over your shock and horror at learning that someone in a position of power had a reputation for being a bit of a cad. Outrageous behaviour. Wouldn’t happen nowadays. Ahem.
John was the younger brother of Richard the Lion Heart. Richard, loved as he was by the people, wasn’t actually the best king ever, he spent a lot of time away fighting in the Crusades. (Good for him but bad for us peasants.) So John, although not the greatest king, and a bit of a cowardly custard compared with big Bro, wasn’t totally to blame. He didn’t help matters though, he didn’t have his brother’s charisma, nor his sense, and he lost a lot of the family jewels to France. The long and the short of it was that John owed money to his barons and had no intention of paying them back. That was possibly a good short-term plan, but was never going to work in the long-term.
The Magna Carta didn’t, if John complied with the legal terms, give him a lot of wriggle room. Many historians say that there was only one way out – civil war. And, sure as eggs are eggs, war broke out within three months of the signing of the Magna Carta.
There were several more “Great Charters” over the years; to be honest, the territory becomes quite technical in terms of legal issues, and I have no intention of going into them here. (Two reasons: one, I am not a lawyer, two, I am not a historian.) Suffice it to say that the Magna Carta had a huge impact, conferring a number of rights on the barons of the day (not on the rest of us, those of us that were peasants were really unaffected by it). The rights conferred were built on over time, who knows where we would all be now, if not for the Magna Carta? Although, somehow, I suspect we’d have reached a place not far from where we are now, just maybe with far more bloodshed.
© Susan Shirley 2016