The Story of England: King John and the Charter

Arthur Bryant examines the background to Magna Carta.

In the light of his son’s use of it, Henry II’s achievement had presented England with a terrible dilemma. The great Angevin had convinced the nation and even its feudal magnates that, after the disorder of Stephen’s reign, happiness and prosperity for all depended on the supremacy of the Crown. He had created a legal and financial machinery for making that supremacy effective and a self-renewing school of trained administrators to operate it under his successors. That the first of these was almost continuously out of the realm had mattered comparatively little; the mechanism of State had continued to function in his absence and the officials Henry had trained to strengthen and improve it. But when the next heir proved a diabolical maniac, who used the royal power to make life intolerable for his subjects and alienated everyone in turn, those whom Henry had made the agents of that power were, little by little, driven into making a choice. They had either to destroy it, and with it the order and unity on which the prosperity of the realm depended, or subject the wearer of the crown himself to it. The first course might have been easy; the second was superlatively hard. It is the supreme measure of Henry II’s achievement in educating his greater subjects that the best of them chose the second, and carried their reluctant fellows with them.

Yet the very cunning and ability of his son also impelled men to that wiser choice. Had John been a weakling as well as an impossible king, the monarchical power which had become the expression of England’s unity could scarcely have survived the storms raised by his misdeeds. Yet, for all his periodic lethargy, when driven into a corner he fought back with a fury that made even the most reckless or arrogant opponent chary of going to extremes. It was no child’s play to dash from his hands the sceptre and rod he misused. The alternative of restraining and controlling him—and with him the royal power—was thus kept open.

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