The Road to Runnymede

Magna Carta was born of the loss of King John’s French territories and his increasingly desperate – and expensive – attempts to regain them, argues Sean McGlynn.

All that his great men could expect from him was dishonour … He forbade his chief men from marrying or giving their daughters in marriage without the king's knowledge … he abolished old laws and every year issued new ones … He crushed almost everyone with his scutages [military taxes] and a flood of forced services … he undermined the written privileges of all, prepared traps for the liberties of all … he retained or sold inheritances … he prevaricated in determining lawsuits and often sold justice.

This damning contemporary indictment highlights many of the grievances expressed in Magna Carta, forced by his barons onto 'Bad' King John, who has a reputation as arguably England's worst monarch. The criticisms, however, are directed at John's father, Henry II, who is widely regarded as one of England's greatest rulers and come from Ralph Niger, a late 12th-century chronicler. Ralph was not alone in his reproaches: Gerald of Wales, who knew Henry well, wrote that the king was 'from beginning to end, an oppressor of the nobility, weighing equity and injustice, right and wrong, as it suited him. He sold and delayed justice, his word was changeable and deceitful'. All these charges were, in turn, to be levelled at John.

King John hunting a stag with hounds, contemporary image.

Such attacks on Henry have led historians to see the English as being subjected to an Angevin despotism in government that began when Henry of Anjou became ruler of England in 1154. For some who take this line, it is during Henry's long reign until 1189 and that of his heir, Richard (r.1189-99), that the increasingly harsh exactions of unrelenting government ratcheted up the financial pain of the country to such an extent that, by the time John inherited the draconian system in 1199, the country was already near breaking point. After over half a century of Angevin rule, the barons had had enough and, in 1215, they rebelled and compelled John to agree to the terms we know as Magna Carta.

Did the road to Runnymede start 60 years earlier when Henry became king? Has John unfairly been made the unfortunate Angevin scapegoat? Or did John simply take too many wrong turnings as monarch of England? Certainly, Magna Carta had a long gestation period, but there is no need for a paternity suit: John was its feckless father.

The historian David Crouch has demonstrated how far things had deteriorated under John. In the immediate years preceding the events at Runnymede, he reveals that a real measure of how critical matters were can be gauged by the number of 'corporate baronial letters suddenly flying everywhere', arguing that 'statements of joint baronial positions and beliefs are the most evocative symbol of crisis. Things have to be really bad to get the barons to work that closely together'. They were unified above all by one factor: John.

The question of why Magna Carta never materialised under Henry or Richard can be answered simply: they were strong and successful kings. John, on the other hand, was a failure. Periodic attempts to salvage John's reputation as a maligned and misunderstood monarch stand on the same uncertain ground that reputedly swallowed up John's treasure in The Wash in the dying months of his disastrous reign. John certainly could be energetic and intelligent and he had a number of impressive successes, but he was incapable of either sustaining or capitalising on these. None stack up favourably against the damning situation of his kingdom at his death in October 1216, with Angevin lands in France long since lost, London in baronial hands for nearly a year and a half and half the country under French occupation for nearly six months.


John was in a strong position in 1202 after his victory at Mirebeau in France, where he captured his 15-year-old nephew and rival claimant to the throne, Duke Arthur of Brittany, and many prisoners. But the disappearance of the former (he was almost certainly killed by John to the horror of contemporaries) and his maltreatment of the latter alienated the Bretons and many important regional figures still further. They opted not to support John when King Philip Augustus of France invaded the Duchy of Normandy.

Gaillard Castle in Normandy, taken from John by Philip II after a six-month siege.

John's reputation fell further following his loss of Normandy in 1204. Philip Augustus's alliance with the Bretons only strengthened after their duke's death, enabling the French king to attack John's lands from two fronts. After Philip had taken the key fortress of Château Gaillard, following a dramatic six months' siege, he was able to move on to the duchy's capital, Rouen. John advised his commander there that he could not expect any help from him and should do as they saw fit. When Philip addressed the citizens, says Roger of Wendover, he played on this desertion: 'He begged them as a friend to receive him as their lord since they had no other.' Rouen capitulated and Normandy was lost.

John had confirmed all the worst fears about his military leadership and had lived up to his sobriquet of 'Softsword' (Mollegladium). He did not lead the fight against the French from the front, as Richard would have done; instead he sailed for England in December 1203, never to return to Normandy. Accusations that he preferred to spend his days in bed with his barely teenaged bride, Isabella of Angoulême, reveal something of how contemporaries perceived his character, but the reality was that John was not wired for war. Neither his alienating actions nor his lack of military resolve could inspire his men to follow him; instead, to cries of treachery, many sought greater security for their interests in Philip's camp and his rising power. John's campaigning in France after 1204 achieved little and by 1206 all the lands north of the Loire were in the hands of the French king.

The loss of Normandy was an enormous political, economic and strategic blow, not just for the Crown but also for the barons and knights who had held land in both England and the duchy. Confidence in John, real or pretended, became the self-interested preserve of those who owed their positions to him. Neither Henry nor Richard had lost Normandy and overseen the collapse of the Angevin Empire; John had. He was labelled a loser and it stuck. As David Carpenter has noted: 'The Capetian conquest of Normandy was a turning point in European history. It made the Capetian kings dominant in western Europe and ended the cross-Channel Anglo-Norman state.' For John, it defined his reign, for the rest of his time as king was spent in costly and futile attempts to regain the lands he had so humiliatingly lost in France. It was his pursuit of this that more than anything else led to Magna Carta.

If there was one thing more costly to a medieval monarch than war, it was unsuccessful war. John needed to fill his coffers to fund the men, mercenaries and materiel in the large-scale expeditionary enterprises required, if he were to win his lands back. This meant turning the screws on England like never before. One way to achieve this was through the military shield tax known as scutage, levied on knights as a substitute for military service. This was an increasingly onerous imposition on the barons. Already by 1205 Robert Fitzwalter, later the military commander of the rebels, and Roger Bigod, the Earl of Norfolk, were vociferously opposed to this tax. But John pressed ahead in his pursuit of money to fund his ineffective wars: Henry II had levied eight scutages in 34 years; John levied 11 in just 16. Furthermore, by 1214 they had climbed to a record high rate of exaction. At this point, many barons simply refused to pay up. 'In effect, this represented a tax strike', says the historian Nicholas Vincent.

John also stamped his mark on government bureaucracy and the justice system to maximise royal income. Justice became even more of a financial commodity than it had previously been. John's use of amercements (fines) caused particular grievance. Robert de Ros, Sheriff of Cumberland, was fined 300 marks for failing to hold some prisoners in custody; William of Cornborough died in gaol because he was unable to pay his penalty. John exploited every possibility, even, it would seem, blackmail. The official pipe roll records reveal that in 1210 Robert de Vaux offered John 750 marks so that the king 'would keep quiet about the wife of Henry Pinel'. John's combination of extortion and blackmail was intended to keep as many barons as possible indebted to the king.


Historians seeking to mitigate attacks on John often praise him for his administrative innovations and efficiencies in government. But being an effective king entailed more than being a good book-keeper. John was proficient in extracting money from his subjects: during the Interdict (John's five-year quarrel with the papacy of Innocent III) he raked in the equivalent of over £30 million in today's money, some of it gained by holding mistresses of the clergy for ransom. One has to question whether this revenue collecting can be judged a clear success. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister, stated: 'The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.' John's geese were making a racket. Furthermore, the very fact that John ruthlessly pursued so much money was in itself a sign of his failure, for the revenues were needed to recover the lands that he failed to hold. Another consequence of his loss of so much land was that John became a stay-at-home king: turfed out of most of France, he was confined to the domestic sphere of the British Isles, stepping on everyone's toes and sticking his nose into their every affair. This rendered him for a brief while as master of the house, but it did not last long.

Many powerful men of the realm harboured a personal animosity towards John as their king that went way beyond baronial sulkiness at the financial demands of the crown. John was a notorious womaniser. This was not startling for a king but, as in his financial dealings, John's tactlessness and inability to know where to draw the line served only to antagonise opinion against him. Eustace de Vesci claimed that John attempted to have sex with his wife, while Robert Fitzwalter accused John of having forced himself upon his daughter. These were serious accusations, playing on the insecurities of powerful men who feared for their own families. Of course, it made for a powerful recruitment tool against the king, but it should not be dismissed as fabricated, negative campaigning. The men who made the charges were proud and prominent figures; revelations of this nature besmirched family honour. There is further substance to these accusations from the well-informed Anonymous of Béthune, whose patron fought for John in the Magna Carta war: 'The king lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated.'

John overstepped the boundaries of chivalric behaviour spectacularly in his deplorable treatment of the de Briouze family. When William de Briouze fell out with John over money and politics connected to Ireland, John went after him, ever keen to cut down to size anyone he thought too influential. He rebuffed de Briouze's attempts at reconciliation by making impossible financial demands on him. John seized William's wife and son as hostages. Like Arthur, they disappeared. The chronicles agree that they were starved to death in one of John's royal castles, one reporting luridly that the mother's body was found slumped between her son's legs with her head on his chest, having gnawed at his cheeks for food. The news shocked the kingdom. If this could happen to de Briouze, then no-one was safe from John's arbitrary, unpredictable and vindictive cruelty. He had once again managed to swell the ranks of the baronial discontents. Sidney Painter called the de Briouze affair 'the greatest mistake John made during his reign'.

Opposition to John began to manifest itself more strongly. In 1212, when John was still under excommunication by Pope Innocent III, there had been a plot to abandon him to the Welsh while on campaign, or even to assassinate him. John's reconciliation with the papacy made such a move harder to justify, so instead a large group of barons organised themselves into a political movement determined to curb the increasing excesses of John's power. The last straw came in the summer of 1214.

Having drained the country of funds, John's war coffers were by now full and he could finally set in motion his plan to win back his lands in France. John's bank-rolling of German princes and of his nephew, Emperor Otto, enabled a formidable coalition to be drawn up against France. In a well-conceived strategy, John was to attack France from the south-west, while his allies moved in from the north-east. Unsurprisingly, John did not cover himself in military glory. In early July at La Roche-aux-Moines he was unable to persuade his Poitevin barons to fight against a smaller French army and fled to the safety of La Rochelle.

King Philip lies in mortal danger at the Battle of Bouvines, while Hugh de Boves makes his escape.

At the end of the month, his allies in the north-east, under the supervision of his more martially abled half-brother William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, engaged in a full-scale pitched battle against Philip of France's army at Bouvines. At one point, Philip was unhorsed and close to death, saved only by the heroic action of his personal bodyguard, who threw himself on top of his king and received the fatal blows meant for Philip. Had Philip died, it is likely that the French would have collapsed and the coalition would have won the day. But he survived and it was John's allies that were routed. John's expensive plans had once again come to naught.

He returned to England in mid-October, still demanding payment of scutages. His revenues of that year (just under £26,000 according to the pipe roll) was half that of 1212. His cash was nearly gone. But the barons were no longer prepared to throw good money after bad. There was no return – only heavy loss – on investing in the continental campaigns of a habitually unsuccessful military leader. They had had enough. The baronial party began to draw up the demands that were to evolve into Magna Carta.

The rebels coalesced around the earls Robert de Vere, Saer de Quincy, Henry de Bohun, Richard de Clare, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Roger de Bigod and the Lord of Dunmow, Robert Fitzwalter. Although the rebels are often known collectively as the Northerners, the most important group (including the last four in the above list) came from East Anglia and Essex. Of some nearly 200 baronies in England, only about 20 per cent opposed the king; however, only another 20 per cent openly supported him. The rest sat on the fence and waited to see how matters unfolded.


After years of simmering unrest, events moved quickly. Belatedly, John attempted to sweet-talk waverers over to his side. Meanwhile, he brought in mercenaries and garrisoned his dominating network of some 100 castles. The barons reached out to the new king of Scotland, Alexander II, and to Prince Louis, heir to the Capetian throne in France, for support. Louis responded eagerly. The baronial confederation met at Bury St Edmunds in the autumn of 1214 and attempted to bolster their platform by appealing to Henry I's coronation charter, which promised the crown's commitment to upholding the rights, customs and regulations between the king and his barons. The barons met John in London in January 1215 in a show of force. John played for time, promising to address their grievances by April 26th. In March, John gained papal support for his side by cynically taking the vows of a crusader. Pope Innocent III decried opposition to John and berated England's clergy, including his old university friend, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, for not doing enough to support the king.

Both sides continued to prepare for war. On April 13th another meeting was held at Oxford to discuss the agenda of the upcoming conference promised by the king. When John heard the barons' demands, which Langton had helped draw up, he is reported to have snorted: 'Why do these barons not just ask for my kingdom?' Buoyed by papal backing, John felt strong enough to reject the terms outright. The rebels had mustered their forces at Stamford. On May 5th they proclaimed diffidatio – the breaking of their homage to the king. It was a declaration of war. Robert Fitzwalter was made Marshal of the Army of God and the Holy Church and he led his forces against John's castle at Northampton. The Magna Carta war had begun.

Its first fatality came at Northampton: Fitzwalter's standard bearer was shot through the head with a crossbow bolt. When the castle held out for a fortnight, the rebels moved on to Bedford Castle, which opened its gates to them. After an inauspicious start they then achieved a huge boost: the taking of London. Both sides rushed to secure the capital but the rebels gained the prize. Londoners had been feeling the pinch under John and were displaying their radical streak. It also helped that Robert Fitzwalter owned Baynard's Castle there and had a faction of supporters within the city. It was a major turning point. As Ralph of Coggeshall observed, London caused 'many daily to go over to the army of God'; John was so shaken by the loss 'he was besieged with terror and never left Windsor'. The momentum was now with the rebels; Northampton, Lincoln, Chester and Carlisle capitulated as increasing numbers of baronial fence-sitters joined the rebellion. It was the fall of London that forced John to Runnymede in mid-June, 1215.


The Articles of the Barons (as Magna Carta was initially known) presented to the king is a charter of liberties reflecting the long-held concerns of the discontents. Within the document's 63 clauses financial matters dominate, usually relating to feudal payments such as reliefs, where a sum of £100 for a barony and 100 shillings for a knight's fee was fixed upon to preclude arbitrary rises by the crown. The rights of widows and minors under wardship were protected to permit volition against highest bidders. Other clauses address debts, tariffs and the stipulation that scutages required consent. Even seemingly obscure clauses, such as the one calling for the removal of fish weirs from the Thames, Medway and other waterways, had clear economic implications: weirs impeded the flow of traffic and trade on rivers. The matter of patronage and the bestowal of the plum official jobs is raised by the clause demanding the removal of named foreign servants of the state: the Charter was, in its way, demanding English jobs for English people.

Justice is another key feature, reflecting exasperation at the corrupt and arbitrary nature of John's rule and the fines he imposed through the judicial system, often for political ends. Thus two of the most famous clauses that run consecutively state: 'To no one shall we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay justice'; and 'No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled in any way destroyed, neither will we set forth against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.'

The tomb of King John at Worcester Cathedral.

Security issues were also to the fore, with clauses demanding the return of hostages, lands and castles. Another intended to weaken John's military arm with the 'removal from the kingdom of all foreign knights, crossbowmen, sergeants and mercenaries, who have come with horses and arms to the detriment of the kingdom'. Clause 61, the security clause, is the most radical of all. In it, the barons represented themselves as acting for 'the community of the realm' by establishing a council of 25 barons to oversee the king's adherence to the Charter. Warren says the king was thereby 'virtually reduced to the role of executive officer of the law under the supervision of a baronial committee'; V.H. Galbraith says the clause denoted 'the most fantastic surrender of any English king to his subjects'.

Both sides expected that the Charter would not be permanent and that what had been agreed was little more than a temporary truce: it lasted about ten weeks. Pope Innocent annulled the Charter on the grounds that it was coerced. Both sides had been busy in the meantime preparing for a renewal of the conflict. The Magna Carta war still had over two years left to run.

When John died in October 1216, the Angevin Empire had been lost, half of the country was under French rule and up to two thirds of the baronage had paid homage to 'King Louis I of England'. This was the legacy John left to his nine-year-old son, Henry III.

Sean McGlynn is Lecturer in History at Plymouth University at Strode College.

The Road to Runnymede

Related Articles

The American Bar Association's Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede.

By Alexander Lock

In no country is Magna Carta held in greater reverence than in the United States.

By Ralph V. Turner

How and why Magna Carta became a beacon of liberty.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email