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.

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The Road to Runnymede