A thousand years ago, in late Anglo-Saxon times, England was united into one kingdom ruled by a king and his council, and the institution of kingship was already established as having limited powers.
The king was bound by his Coronation Oath to defend the church, to punish crime and violence, and to rule with clemency and mercy. He was also bound by customary rules of law, and to some extent his power was restricted by his council. He was viewed as a religious and moral leader, a protector of the people in war and in peace.
Following earlier tradition, the English king was not generally regarded as a source of law, although occasionally he might declare the law with the consent of his council or issue written laws called "dooms". The great body of Anglo-Saxon law was the unwritten folk law, handed down from one generation to the next, giving the common people rights and duties of what we would today call citizenship, and setting out procedures for determining fault or guilt and methods of punishing wrongdoers. While change was not impossible, arbitrary alteration of the rules was considered improper, and indeed, bordered on impiety.
This tradition did not of course preclude the frequent occurrence of abuse by monarchs keen to enhance their own powers, or simply reluctant to recognize any form of constraint over their conduct. In such cases it would be the powerful barons and clergy who would bring the king to order in the name of constitutional custom, reinforced by a growing body of written constitutional documents agreed by the kings either freely or under pressure.
When Henry I succeeded to the English throne in 1100 his first aim was to secure his claim more firmly by pacifying the people's and particularly the barons' anger, which had been roused by the irresponsible and expensive conduct of his predecessor William Rufus.
Henry therefore issued a Coronation Charter, also known as the Charter of Liberties, in which he promised to observe the feudal code and to correct the abuses of his predecessors against the barons and the church. He further commanded the barons, his tenants-in-chief, to behave in like manner to their own tenants. Most significantly, he made the charter applicable to all his subjects: "I henceforth remove all bad customs through which the kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed."
While the charter was no more than a proclamation of intentions and promises binding only insofar as Henry saw fit to observe them, its form – a written royal grant – gave it legality and lasting significance. Its chief importance was its admission by the king that even his royal powers were limited under the feudal contract. It also helped to strengthen the principle of defined and disciplined constitutional rule, and as such it was to be influential in the formulation of a later and much more famous constitutional document: the Great Charter sealed in 1215 by King John.
The youngest child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, John was born in Beaumont Palace, Oxford on December 24th, 1167. When his elder brother King Richard the Lionheart died, John succeeded to the throne on April 6th, 1199. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey on the 27th of May in that same year.
Richard the Lionheart had been totally preoccupied with foreign wars, holy crusades and French conquests, and had given very little time or energy to the affairs of his own country. As a result the barons, knights and free men had to a large extent become the true governors of England, though all was still done in the king's name.
At first John neither diminished those powers nor undermined the authority of the council, and for a while England enjoyed the twin advantages of a strong and active king, and a powerful council within which the voice of the subjects could be heard and from which power was to pass to the knights of the shires and to all free men.
Shortly after John's accession however, the King of France had invaded Normandy, of which John was Duke, then pursuing his conquest throughout all the other provinces of the English kings. John fought expensively but unsuccessfully to defend his lands and by 1204, five years after his accession, Normandy, Anjou and Maine were lost. All that remained were the Channel Islands and the province of Gascony. The barons, now deprived of all but their English possessions, were angered by the king's defeat. They, as well as humbler men, were shocked and humiliated by the nation's losses. In derision they nicknamed the king John Lackland. More seriously, the nation now had to pay for his unsuccessful wars.
In 1205 John rejected the Pope's nomination of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. A papal interdict was laid over the whole country in 1208 and John was excommunicated. John was forced to submit at last by resigning his kingdom to the Pope and receiving it back as a fief of the papacy before the interdict and excommunication were ended in May 1213, a humiliating experience for the whole nation.
In 1214 John conducted another campaign in France and suffered a catastrophic defeat at Bouvines. During his absence the barons banded together under the leadership of Stephen Langton to protest against the longstanding misgovernment of the realm.
Gathered at Bury St. Edmunds (in the coastal county of Suffolk, SE England) in November 1214, the barons agreed to petition the king to grant the liberties and laws set forth in the Coronation Charter of Henry I, swearing that if he refused they would renounce their allegiance to him and go to war.
The Battle of Magna Carta
Battle? Surely that's one that doesn't figure in the history books. But battle it was. It was a battle which began in 1215 and remains today in the background of governance, in the competing inter-relationships of politics. The Rule of Law requires the existence of centralized power to give law its authority. And there is an on-going battle for power between the users of power and those who would set constraints on its use. In 1215 it was Magna Carta versus Monarch. Subsequently it has become limitation versus exploitation, respect versus abuse. Today a universal lack of constitutional discipline allows corruption of varying degrees from the most extreme to the "soft" corruption of the over-staffing and over-payment which results from government's non-competitive environment.
The Battle of Magna Carta is an on-going intellectual battle. In 1215 it was real.
In January of 1215 a deputation of barons placed a list of their demands before the king; dressed in full armour they would have left the king in no doubt as to their mood. King John asked for and was granted three months to consider these weighty matters. But his ultimate response was clear: "Why, among these unjust demands, did the barons not ask for my kingdom as well? Their demands are vain, foolish, and utterly unreasonable."
This was taken as a declaration of war. On May 17 the barons' army marched on London; the city opened its gates to them and they were joined by many others who had hitherto stayed out of the conflict. The king took refuge in Windsor castle where he became a virtual prisoner. John sent emissaries to the barons, this time with the message that he was willing to grant the charter of liberties they demanded.
On June 10 the two parties met on neutral ground in a green meadow by the River Thames at Runnymede, midway between the king's castle at Windsor, and London which was now the barons' stronghold. The name Runnymede suggests that this was not the first time councils had been held there; the first part is an old English word Runieg, meaning Council Island; mede being a flat field or meadow.
After considerable negotiation a preliminary document was formulated, briefly listing forty-nine points upon which the king was willing to yield. To it King John attached his seal and upon the basis of that initial document a formal Charter was to be drawn up for signature by the king at a further meeting a few days later.
The title of this preliminary document is significant. It read: These are the Articles which the Barons require and which the King concedes.
While the Magna Carta is revered and respected today as being the 'grand-daddy' of constitutions, and while it is studied, analyzed, and to a large degree copied, a fact rarely considered is that the Magna Carta was 'consumer-driven'.
The King did not write a constitution in which a few crumbs of monarchial self-discipline graciously thrown to the public were greatly outweighed by his own rights and privileges. It was the barons, nobles and clergy who as objects of the king's whims and the taxpayers who funded them, it was they who drew up the Great Charter and compelled the King to agree to it.
King John had been compelled by force of arms to comply with the demands of the barons who had risen in armed and successful rebellion against him, and the preliminary heads of agreement recorded that the king conceded the demands which the barons required.
Yet the final, formal version of the Great Charter to which John acceded a few days later on June 15, the Charter we know today, begins with a greeting from the king to his loyal subjects, and records that he has acted with their advice. This change in wording clearly shows that the stability of the monarchy was considered as important as its reformation, and nothing was done to diminish the apparent authority of the king even in the hour of his humiliation and defeat.
With the formal sealing of the Charter, the monarch had confirmed the essential principles of constitutional discipline: the obligation to rule responsibly, to rule in consultation with his peers, and to conduct himself within the bounds of established law and custom.
The Magna Carta was dependent for its observance largely on the monarch's goodwill, which was not always forthcoming. But in one respect at least, the king's subjects had a degree of leverage; it was upon them that the king depended for money to carry on his government and foreign wars, not to mention maintaining his lavish royal lifestyle.
Clause 12 of Magna Carta had already made the raising of taxes (aid or scutage) dependent on the general consent of the kingdom, and clause 14 laid down the method whereby the general consent was to be obtained:
"To obtain the general consent of the realm for the assessment of an aid or scutage we will cause the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons to be summoned individually by letter... to come together on a fixed day and at a fixed place."
The periodic convening of his influential men by the king continued during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, developing gradually into an early form of parliament which would later challenge and claim precedence over the power of the king.