The importance of Magna Carta—both at the time it was issued on 15 June 1215 and in the centuries which followed, when it exerted great influence in countries where the English common law was adopted or imposed—is a major theme of events to mark the charter’s 800th anniversary. But such is the focus on England and English common law that it’s easy to overlook the charter’s international dimension: the part played in its making by ideas, events, and people in other European countries.
The basic purpose of Magna Carta, to define and limit the powers of the crown, had parallels and precedents in southern France and Spain, and even in distant Hungary. Perhaps that is unsurprising, since the English monarchy in around 1200 was an international one. King John was not only king of England, he was also lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy, count of Anjou, and duke of Aquitaine, the ruler of an empire covering most of western France. He spoke French and owned French books.
The power of the English crown intimidated the rulers of Wales and Scotland, and made enemies as well as allies for its wearer among the great lords of France. These were exploited by Philippe II, king of France, and thus John’s overlord for his continental possessions. John’s second marriage, to Isabella of Angoulême, entailed overriding the prior claims to her hand of a French count, Hugues de Lusignan, and so gave Philippe grounds for confiscating the English king’s French lordships. Unlike his elder brother, Richard I, John had little military talent, and by the end of 1204 had lost all his lands north of the Loire.
Many English magnates also lost lands, especially in Normandy, and sometimes made efforts to retain them through negotiations with King Philippe. William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, did so, and aroused John’s easily-induced suspicions as a result. No less distrusted was Stephen Langton, whose elevation to the archbishopric of Canterbury by Innocent III in 1206 brought John into conflict with another external power, the papacy. Langton was a Lincolnshire man by birth, but his having studied, and then taught, at the University of Paris since around 1165 made John refuse to accept him as the head of the English church. To force the king’s compliance, in 1208 Innocent placed England under an interdict (a general prohibition of the holding of religious services), and excommunicated John himself in 1209. Most of the English bishops, and many other clerics, refused to serve an excommunicated king and went abroad, nearly always to France.
John’s loss of French lands and quarrel with Rome coloured events for much of the rest of his reign—his huge efforts to recover Normandy, in particular, lay behind many of the activities condemned in Magna Carta, as he collected money to raise troops and finance allies. Thus it placed limits on his ability to raise money through ‘reliefs’ (in effect inheritance taxes, as addressed in chapter 2 of the charter), to institute other taxes without the consent of his leading subjects (chapter 12), to impose fines out of all proportion to the offence (chapter 20), and to sell justice (chapter 40). It also forbade him to employ foreign soldiers, men like Girard d’Athée and Falkes de Bréauté who became deeply unpopular (chapters 50-51), and reversed his harsh treatment of the Welsh and Scots (chapters 57-59). The Welsh prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth had responded to John’s actions by making an alliance with King Philippe. Conspicuously lacking in man-management skills, John always found it easier to compel than to persuade men to support and follow him, often by taking hostages from them (chapter 49).
John’s methods bred resentment (his summoning English barons to serve in armies in France provoked much discontent), then resistance. In 1212 he learnt of a plot against his life led by two leading barons, Eustace de Vescy and Robert Fitzwalter; on its discovery, Eustace fled to Scotland, Robert to France. A year later they returned to England after John came to terms with the pope—he accepted Langton as archbishop, and even became a papal vassal, thus effectively making Innocent III his ally. With that embarrassment removed, in 1214 John brought his plans for war in France to fruition. But a double attack on the French king, by one army led by John himself in the south, and another in the north largely made up of his allies, failed utterly. The battle of Bouvines, in which the northern forces were crushed on 27 July, was decisive for events in England as well as in France. When John returned home defeated, rebellion was imminent.
Magna Carta was intended to prevent civil war. Opinions differ as to the influence exerted upon it by canon law, the international law of the church, but its crucial insistence that a king should act in accordance with law had formed part of Langton’s teaching at Paris. The concessions it extracted were too much for the king, though not enough for his baronial enemies who were exasperated by years of oppression. The pope soon annulled Magna Carta, as extracted from the king under duress, and in the autumn of 1215 civil war broke out in earnest, with the barons making up for their own lack of military strength by offering the throne to Louis, the eldest son and heir of King Philippe.
The extent to which these events took place in a world of fluctuating loyalties extending well beyond England is demonstrated in the actions of two other men of continental origin. In 1216 the fleet which brought Prince Louis and his men to England was commanded by Eustace the Monk—a mercenary born in the county of Boulogne who had previously served King John before switching his loyalties. Then, following King John’s death in October 1216 a group of royalists oversaw a re-issue of Magna Carta. They were headed by the papal legate, Guala Bicchieri. The actions of this Italian prelate did much to rescue the Plantagenet dynasty, and the Great Charter as well.