June 15

1215, 1381, 1990


Magna Carta, the Great Charter, signed with the royal seal today in 1215 by King John Lackland, though actually there would be several more versions, revisions, amendments, in the decade that followed - nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten - and the final and definitive version, the one that endured into history, the one still theoretically on the statute book in the United Kingdom to this day, though actually all but three of its sixty-three clauses have been repealed, really belongs to John's successor, his son (just 9 years old when his father died), King Henry III (r. 1216–72), who issued his final version on February 11th 1225.

A paragraph built of sentences with qualifications! Ah yes, deliberately - whereas (as the lawyers say) Magna Carta is the founding statement of Democracy and Liberty in England; whereas (in the other sense of that word), in the eight hundred years that have followed, very little has happened with it but more, and then still more qualifications, limitations, proscriptions.

Illuminated replica, circa 1300

Sixty-three clauses in the original document, of which one of the survivors defends the rights and liberties of what was then a very different English Church, and another confirms the somewhat meaningless "liberties and customs" of London and several other towns. The third survivor, Clause 39, is the one that probably mattered most then, and definitely still does today, though it needs to be seen in context to be fully grasped. It granted to "free men" the right to justice and a fair trial; a principle that would be enshrined in the American Bill of Rights (1791), as well as many other constitutional documents around the world, culminating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950. It states, in full, that:

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."
Context, however, is essential. No definition is given of "free men", but these were feudal times, when the majority of the people (about 96% of them in fact) were either unfree rural peasants, known as "villeins", who could only seek justice through the Baronial courts of their own lords, or town-dwellers, who came under the authority of the ecclesiastical courts, or those of the king himself. Magna Carta was thus a "Baron's Charter", not a "People's Charter".

Issued for the 800th anniversary in 2015

Of the sixty clauses that have not survived, most dealt with specific Baronial grievances regarding the ownership of land, the regulation of the justice system, and medieval taxes that have no modern equivalent (such interesting options for future Chancellors as "scutage" and "socage" - the former money paid by a vassal to his lord in lieu of military service; the latter a tenure of land by means of rent or non-military service). Others demanded the removal of fish weirs from the Thames, the Medway and throughout England; the dismissal of several named royal servants; the standardisation of various weights and measures; and all manner of other activities of the sort that politicians can always find use for when their vote is needed or a continuing coalition depends on them. So it was conceded by the much-bullied king that no taxes could be demanded without the "general consent of the realm" - again meaning the leading Barons and the Churchmen - while re-establishing several privileges that had been lost, while linking fines to the severity of the offence so as not to threaten an individual's livelihood. Of the lost items that we should regret, it confirmed that a widow could not be forced to remarry against her wishes.

All of this is the what; but what of the why?

Bear in mind that there had never been a national sovereign until William of Normandy conquered the Saxon kingdom in the central south of Britain in 1066, and then expanded in every whichway, taking the Jute and Frisian and Angle kingdoms in the south-east, then the Welsh, the Viking north, the lands of the Picts and the Scots, finally that of the Eirish, whence his sobriquet "the Conqueror". His son William Rufus was thus the first authentically national monarch to inherit a kingdom, after which Henry I, the civil war involving Stephen and Mathilda, Henry II who barely set foot in the realm but ruled it as an absentee landlord from Poitiers, and his son Richard I likewise - Richard only once set foot in England, for ten days in 1190, for his coronation, and he spoke not a single word of Aenglish. By the time Richard went on Crusade and left his brother John in charge, and in a form of charge that left him immune from such few laws as there were, the Barons (most of them Franco-Normans who likewise knew no Aenglish, but who owned all the land and had no great interest in servility to an absentee landlord, and no wish to be involved in wars in France - especially when John lost the Battle of Bouvines in 1214), the Barons decided that enough was not, for themselves at least, enough. They wanted more, and now was the time to get it.

Now, because there was also the little matter of the church. The Pope had appointed Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury; John had rejected the appointment; the Pope had issued an "interdict", prohibiting people in England from receiving the sacraments, excommunicating John; John had no choice but to formally surrender his kingdom to the Pope, which he did in 1213, shortly before going to war in France. However bad a bad king, better a bad king than a distant Pope. Now had arrived.

Langton had the support of several Barons, who called for a meeting with John, Langton himself, and the Papal Legate who had just arrived from Rome. The aim at this stage was to have John affirm the Charter of Henry I, a pre-Magna Carta if you like, in which Henry had promised "to abolish all the evil customs by which the kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed". John refused. The Barons responded by renouncing their oaths of allegiance to him, appointing Robert fitz Walter as their leader, and marching on, indeed capturing London. Now John was powerless politically, militarily and spiritually. Negotiation at Runnymede was simply a matter of the terms of his surrender.

These were written first into the Articles of the Barons, then proclaimed as the Charter of Liberties - the name Magna Carta would be bestowed later - at Runnymede on June 15th 1215, sealed with the Great Seal rather than signed with the royal signature. Four days later the Barons restated their oaths of allegiance, Stephen Langton took up his post officially at Canterbury, and the royal clerks prepared copies for national distribution. four of which can still be seen, one in Lincoln Cathedral; one in Salisbury Cathedral; and two at the British Library.

     The Barons (officially "The Sureties for the Enforcement"): William d'Aubigny, 
     Lord of Belvoir Castle, Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk, Hugh Bigod, 
     Heir to the Earldoms of Norfolk and Suffolk, Henry de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, 
     Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford, Gilbert de Clare, heir to the earldom of Hertford, 
     John FitzRobert, Lord of Warkworth Castle, Robert FitzWalter de Clare, Lord of 
     Dunmow Castle, William de Fortibus, Earl of Albemarle, William Hardel, Mayor of 
     the City of London, William de Huntingfield, Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, John de 
     Lacy, Lord of Pontefract Castle, William de Lanvallei, Lord of Standway Castle, 
     William Malet, Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex 
     and Gloucester, William Marshall Jr, heir to the earldom of Pembroke, Roger de 
     Montbegon, Lord of Hornby Castle, Lancashire Richard de Montfichet, Baron of 
     Stanstead, William de Mowbray, Lord of Axholme Castle, Richard de Percy, 
     Baron, Saire/Saher de Quincy, Earl of Winchester, Robert de Ros, Lord of Hamlake 
     Castle, Geoffrey de Saye, Baron, Robert de Vere, heir to the earldom of Oxford, 
     Eustace de Vesci, Lord of Alnwick Castle

     The Witnesses: Bishops: Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal of the 
     Holy Roman Church, Henry de Loundres, Archbishop of Dublin; E., Bishop of 
     London, Jocelin of Wells, Bishop of Bath and Wells; Peter des Roches, Bishop of 
     Winchester; Hugh de Wells, Bishop of Lincoln; Herbert Poore (aka "Robert"), 
     Bishop of Salisbury; W., Bishop of Rochester; Walter de Gray, Bishop of 
     Worcester; Geoffrey de Burgo, Bishop of Ely; Hugh de Mapenor, Bishop of 
     HerefordRichard Poore, Bishop of Chichester (brother of Herbert/Robert above); 
     W., Bishop of Exeter; Llywelyn the Great. Also the other Welsh Princes: Master 
     Pandulff, subdeacon and member of the Papal Household; Brother Aymeric, Master 
     of the Knights Templar in England; Alexander II of Scotland

Now that he had sufficient power again, John immediately sent envoys to Rome to have the Charter annulled; to which the Barons responded by refusing to give up London until it was fully enforced. The Pope, somewhat surprisingly, took John's side, issuing a Papal Bull on August 24th of that year, which declared the Charter "null and void of all validity for ever", and described it as "illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people", which is not a description you will find on the current UK government's website (click here), nor among the statements of Lord Denning, the senior lawyer in the UK in the latter years of the 20th century, who called it "the greatest constitutional document of all time – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot".

The outcome of the Pope's support for John was the resumption of what from the outset had effectively been a civil war. The King used the scutage levy to raise a mercenary army, and invited Prince Louis, the French Dauphin, to join him in exchange for a promise that he would inherit the throne of England. Louis duly invaded England early the following year, but withdrew when John died of dysentery in October 1216. Magna Carta might well have gone to the grave with him, but his 9 year old son Henry, now King Henry III, looked at the power of the Barons and his own prospects for the future, and agreed the issue of a slightly revised version that November - a coronation gift to those he needed to placate. Further revisions in the reissue of the following year, and very many more in the 1225 edition, by which time he was 18, in charge, in control, and intent on staying so. It was this version which Edward I reaffirmed in 1297 (click here).

So it wasn't a desire to see morality enshrined in law that brought about Magna Carta, and it wasn't the freedom of the individual either. Indeed, it wasn't really a Charter at all - it was an interim peace treaty in an ongoing power-struggle between a king and his Barons. 

You can read the full document by clicking here


The "free men", as noted above, did not include 96% of the people, all of whom were vassails, serfs, servants, conscripts, or simply the generality of "peasants", literally owned by the crown or the barons, with no legal rights of any kind, even in matters of rape or theft or murder. They could take a complaint to their liege and master, and maybe there would be redress, and maybe there wouldn't. Even when the House of Commons was added to the House of Lords, on January 20th 1265, it was the second chamber, the Lords the first, and for the next several hundred years, until the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1868, the Barons would pretty much determine who got a seat, and how they sat on it.

There was, however, one moment when the peasants rose up in revolt, to demand their rights as something like free men. In 1380, the fourteen year old Richard II was persuaded to impose a four pence poll tax on all "lay people", to fund a war in France, the third such tax in just four years, and unlike "free people", the term included all the peasantry, for whom four pence was provision for their family for many days. The consequence was rebellion. Armed with little more than axes and sickles, the folk of Kent elected Jack Strawe and Walter Tylere (Wat Tyler in most modern translations) as their leaders, and fifty thousand of them marched on London. They took Canterbury on June 10th, the Savoy Palace, home of the king's senior advisor John of Gaunt's, on June 13th, and this morning, June 15th 1381, they were rewarded with a summit meeting, leadership with leadership, the King choosing Smithfield - or in those days Smethfield, the Saxon way of describing a "smooth field" - as the venue: just outside the Barbican of the city wall, between the Aldersgate and the Charterhouse.

Opportunities of this kind don't come very often, and "Scargill" Tyler and Jack Strawe (the modern one, coming up later on this page, spells it without that final "e") pushed their luck as far as they hoped to get away with: not only did they insist that the poll tax be rescinded, but they wanted the abolition of serfdom, the right to buy and sell in the market place, and not just the confiscation of all church lands, but their redistribution on egalitarian lines - Trotsky and Che Guevara would have been proud of them, and given them signed copies of the Comunist Manifesto.

The king might even have agreed to these demands; at one point he mounted his horse and offered to lead the next stage of the march. But like Korach and Avi-Hu and Dotan, frustrated at the time it was taking Moses on the mountain, others in the ranks had broken them, freeing the radical priest John Ball from prison, engaging in fisticuffs, then knives. The rioting even affected the negotiators at Smethfield, William Walworth, the mayor of London, landing a blow that wounded Wat Tyler, after which one of the King's squires stabbed him in the guts. His comrades took him the few yards to St Bartholomew’s Hospital for treatment, but Walworth simply sent the city guards to drag him out again, and had him beheaded. Ball and Straw were captured shortly afterwards, and subjected, without trial, to the ritual of hanging, drawing and quartering. The "Peasant's Revolt" as historians fondly remember it, was over, and had achieved, not counting spilled blood, absolutely nothing.

Nor would anything like it be seen on the streets of Britain again, for six hundred years; and when it did happen again, it was for precisely the same reason - the imposition of a poll tax, which the "free men and women of Britain" (which by then was most of us) simply would not accept. HIstorians will tell you that Margaret Thatcher resigned because her John of Gaunt, the Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, broke ranks, and took the rest of the Cabinet with him. But that was the end of the process, in November 1990. The beginning of the end was eight months earlier, on March 31, when not fifty but two hundred and fifty thousand marched, and not just from Kent but from across the British Isles, and not just peasants but the middle classes too; they gathered at Kennington Park, just outside the modern city boundaries at Lambeth, and marched on Trafalgar Square. This time the Poll Tax was defeated.

Three last observations, based on clever-clever comments emailed to me by readers:

i) No, June 15th was not a significant date in the Thatcher case, but I have included the piece here as an addendum to the 1381 piece; with a link to March 31

ii) I have no idea if Future Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was on the 1990 march

iii) No, this is not why we call them "Straw Polls"