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Ireland a force might be raised for the suppression of

1211 English resistance. From Ireland he flew to Wales, the
ever restless, and dispersed the cloud of mischief which
was gathering on those hills. He forced the Welsh chief-
tains to give him twenty-eight hostages, whom, finding
that the Welsh were again being stirred up against him,
he hanged. He now received ominous warnings of
treason near his person. From Wales he flew north-
wards, then he hurried to London, crushed disaffection
there, and forced the barons whom he suspected to put
their children into his hands. In the norths where the
spirit of the barons was most independent, rebellion broke
out, but the mercenaries put it down.

It seemed that in the battle between brute force and
superstition brute force was not unlikely to win. But


superstition now, as usual, called brute force to its aid.
The pope absolved John's subjects from their allegiance,
deposed him, and gave his kingdom to his enemy, Philip
of France. Philip's rapacity had already served Innocent
in the extermination of the Albigenses. It answered with
alacrity to this new call. He raised an army for the inva- 1212
sion of England, and by his sword the pope was on the
point of slaughtering the bodies of John's subjects, as by
the interdict he had slaughtered their souls. John mus-
tered the forces of his kingdom on Barham Down, but he 1213
could rely on none save the mercenaries and the auxiliaries
whom De Grey had brought from Ireland. He felt that
all men were against him and were looking for his fall.
The prophecy of a certain Peter Hermit that he would no
longer be king on Ascension day had taken hold of the
mind of the people and of his own. Pandulph, the pope's
legate, a wily Italian, slipped over to scare him with pict-
ures of the French force. At last his heart failed him.
He gave way, and as his resistance had been sustained 1213
not by principle, but by savage pride, he not only bent
but broke. He consented to admit Langton as archbishop.
He engaged to restore all exiles, release all prisoners, re-
scind all outlawries against clergymen, make full restitu-
tion of all church property, and reimburse those whom he
had despoiled. He did more, and much worse. By a
formal instrument placed in the hands of Pandulph, he
surrendered his kingdom to the pope, and received it
back as a lief of the Holy See, undertaking to pay for it
in token of vassalage the annual sum of a thousand marks,
of which three hundred were for Ireland. He was then
released from excommunication by Stephen Langton, at
whose feet and those of the bishops he grovelled in tears.


But the interdict and the destruction of souls which it
entailed were allowed to continue for nearly a year, when
John, having satisfied the pope on the question of com-
1213 pensation, the bells rang out again and the services of the
church were performed once more. Papal and ecclesiasti-
cal pretensions had reached their high-water mark in Eng-
land. From this time the tide is falling, though the
waves may again beat high.

With the pope John's peace was ignominiously made.
His peace was not made with his subjects, who, besides
the public grievances, arbitrary taxation, abuse of the
feudal rights and perquisites of the crown, sale and denial
of justice, the violence and licence of the mercenary
troops, the employment of foreign brigands in high places,
violations of the liberties of London and other towns, and
oppressive administration of the forest laws, which John
aggravated by preserving feathered game, had private
wrongs to avenge ; the ruin of their estates, the banish-
ment of their kindred, the pollution of their homes by the
king's lust. Even the clergy, complaining that through
the partial management of the pope's legate they had been
docked of their indemnity, were still malcontent. There
ensued a great political movement, in which the strength
of the Angevin monarchy, with its army of mercenaries,
and the decline of the feudal militia, compelled the
nobility to enlist the people. Had the monarchy been
weak, privilege would have needed no ally. The
soul of the movement was the free-spirited baronage of
the north. As its consecrator and guide came forward
Stephen Langton, in choosing whom as archbishop the
pope had chosen much better than he knew. Stephen,
though a churchman, was an Englishman. He had shown


his regard for liberty and right b}^ binding the king at his
absolution to keep the good laws of Edward the Confes-
sor. He now began to play a part as unexpected as it
was memorable.

Philip of France had spent much money in armaments,
and his cupidity had been excited. When, the reconcilia-
tion of the king with the pope having taken place, it was
notified to him hj Innocent that the crusade was at an
end, he cursed the deceitfulness of Rome and proposed to
his council to sail for England, the pope's prohibition not-
Avithstanding. But he Avas thwarted in the council by
Ferrand, Count of Flanders, who at heart was an ally of
England. He then turned from England upon Flanders, 1213
took Ypres, and was laying siege to Ghent when the Eng-
lish fleet, which had been collected to meet the invasion,
sailed to the Flemish coast under William Longsword,
Earl of Salisbury, the bastard brother of John, and capt-
ured the greater part of the French fleet, laden with sup-
plies for the campaign. John's spirit rose, and he once
more showed himself not incapable of vigorous action.
He passed with an army into France, for a moment recon- 1214
quered Poitou, and by a grand stroke of diplomacy
formed a league with the Emperor, the Count of Flanders,
and other princes of Germany and the Low Countries,
which brought the French monarchy to fight for its life 1214
on the field of Bouvines, and, had the day there gone in
favour of the league, might have altered the course of
European history. At Bouvines, however, the star of
France prevailed, and John returned from abroad weak-
ened by defeat to encounter rebellion at home.

The immediate issue was foreign service. In the last
reign this issue had been raised with success by the

VOL. I — 9


saintly Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, in whom Richard, had
he lived, might have encountered a second Becket. The
barons had refused to follow the king to France, pleading
that they had served their forty days at the rendezvous
on Barham Down. The king was proceeding to take
summary vengeance on them when his path was crossed
by the archbishop, who warned him that it was the right
of the accused to be tried by their peers. Meetings were
held to concert measures for the defence of liberty and
right. At one of these Stephen Langton produced a copy
of the charter of Henry I. The barons accepted it with
acclamation. Assembling under colour of a pilgrimage

1214 at St. Edmundsbury they were sworn severally at the
high altar to withdraw their allegiance to the king if he
should refuse to acknowledge their chartered rights. On
his return they presented themselves before him in arms,
and demanded the laws of Edward the Confessor and the
charter of Henry I., thus combining the claims of both
races and all interests. John saw his danger. He had
lost the support of the legate, whom the pope had re-

' called, and. he had been bereft of the aid of his ablest
counsellor by the death of John De Grey. He tempo-
rized, sent for more foreign troops, strengthened his
castles, and tried, though in vain, to detach the clergy
• from the common cause by granting them a charter of

1215 free elections to bishoprics and abbacies. He also tried
in vain to enforce a general renewal of the oath of fealty
with an abjuration of the liberties now demanded. At
the same time he took hold of the skirts of the church by
enrolling himself among the crusaders. Both parties
applied to the pope. It is often said that the papacy, in
the middle ages, was the friend of public liberty. It


might balance other tyrannies, but it has always been, in
its affinities and sympathies, as well as in its own char-
acter, despotic. When did a pope rebuke the misrule of
a king, or excommunicate and depose an oppressor who
was not an enemy of the papacy? Innocent intended
that the power in Christendom should be held under
himself by the kings. Having reduced the tyrant to
vassalage he now upheld the tyranny. He enjoined the
archbishop, at whom he glanced as the promoter of the
disturbances, to put them dowa, annulled all leagues,
and forbade them to be formed in future under pain of
excommunication. The barons, advancing with a large
force to Brackley in Northamptonshire, again presented
their demands to the king, who lay at Oxford. The
king, having garrisoned his castles, and being assured
of the pope's support, told them that they might as well
demand his crown, and that he would never grant them
liberties which would make him a slave. A slave the
Angevin monarch deemed himself if a limit were put to
his power. Pandulph, the pope's legate, called on the
archbishop to excommunicate the conspirators. But
Langton declined, saying that he knew the pope's in-
tentions better, and threatened to excommunicate the
foreign soldiery if they were not sent out of the kingdom.
Civil war then broke out. The army of the barons,
which st3ded itself the Army of God and Holy Church,
took the field under the command of Fitzwalter. This
was no mutiny of the feudatories against the crown as
a power of order: The aristocracy, which formed the
Army of God and Holy Church, was an aristocracy of
after-growth, having its chief seat in the north, English
and patriotic, whatever language it might speak. With


it were combined representatives of the great ministerial
houses. It rose not against order, but against lawless
tyranny. The English people who had been for Rufus,
for Henry I., for Henry II., against the feudatories of
the conquest, were with the new nobility against the
king. London was heartily on the same side. On the
king's side at last were only a few satellites of his
tyranny and the captains of his mercenary bands. One
or two nobles of the better stamp, such as William Mar-
shall, Earl of Pembroke, remained with him, hoping to
guide him right, and probably dreading the confusion
which would ensue if the monarchy were overthrown.
Langton, the paragon of ecclesiastical statesmen, pre-
served the attitude of a mediator, while he was the soul
of the patriot cause. The younger barons, as was natu-
ral, were foremost in the fray.

The patriot army appeared before Northampton, which,
London being disaffected, was John's chief seat of govern-
ment and the depository of his treasure. But the foreign
garrisons were staunch and the place was too strong to be
taken without a siege. Bedford opened its gates, and
now an invitation arrived from the patriot party in Lon-
don. A detachment at once hastened thither. The
gates were opened while the citizens were at early Mass
and the city was occupied without resistance. The pa-
triots are accused of having held a reign of terror, arrested
the partisans of the king, and seized their goods. His
capital lost, and rebellion, after the fall of London, boldly
rearing its crest on all sides of him, the king was fain to

He was at Windsor. There he met the barons. On a
broad meadow beside the Thames, between Windsor and


Staines, famed in political history under the name of
Runnymede, two camps were pitched. In one were the
king, Pandulph the papal legate, representing the pope
as suzerain, John's ministers, the few barons who adhered
to him, and his mercenary captains. In the other was the
Army of God and Holy Church. Under the mediation of
Langton and William Marshall a conference was held.
The •issue was a charter ostensibly of grace, really of 1215
capitulation, granted by the king and witnessed by the
chief men, lay and clerical, of the realm.

This is that Great Charter which, again and again
renewed, was invoked by succeeding generations as the
palladium of national right. Of it the other great docu-
ments in the archives of English liberty, the Renunciation
of Tallage, the Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus, and
the Bill of Right, are complements or reassertions. Its
name is sacred in all lands to which British institutions
have spread, it served as the watchword of patriotism in
the American revolution, as well as in the struggles against
the tyranny of Plantagenets or Stuarts, and was invoked
in 1865, for the protection of the black peasantry in the
British dependency of Jamaica. It is only now begin-
ning, in common with all charters and all ancestral or tra-
ditional safeguards, to give place to political science as
the morning star gives place to day.

The earliest constitution, this Charter has been called.
That designation it can hardly claim. It is too unmethodi-
cal, too miscellaneous, and its great political articles were
dropped in subsequent editions. Some of its articles are
personal, such as that requiring the dismissal of John's
mercenary captains by name, and the expulsion of their
bands. Some are occasional, such as that providing for


the restitution of the king's robberies. Its framers cer-
tainly had no object in view beyond the correction of
abuses, though in correcting the abuse they affirmed the •

The American Declaration of Independence, the French
Declaration of the Rights of Man, proclaim abstract princi-
ples. The Great Charter proclaims no abstract principles.
It simply redresses wrongs. But the wrongs are sub'stan-
tially those of bad government in general, and the princi-
ples of redress are fundamental.

The piety of the Army of God gives the first place to
the church, which is assured of all its rights and liberties,
including freedom of election to bishoprics and abbacies ;
a freedom which, however, it was destined never to enjoy,
and which it could not have enjoyed with the pope for its
head and in conjunction with the vast endowments and
privileges of an establishment, without creating within
the realm a power external and most dangerous to the

The charter proceeds to deal with the abuses of the
feudal system, or, to speak more properly, of the system
of tenures ; such as the exaction of arbitrary sums by way
of reliefs on the demise of the fief, and of unreasonable
amounts for the three lawful aids, those of knighting the
lord, marrying his eldest daughter, and ransoming him
from captivity ; the levying of excessive fines for breach
of feudal obligation ; waste of the estates of wards ; the
sale of minor heirs, or of heiresses, in marriages of dis-
paragement ; the practice of forcing doAvagers to marry
any man of the lord's choice.

Of more permanent importance are the articles which
secure to London and all the other cities and ports, now

Yi JOHN 136.

lifting their heads above feudalism, the enjoyment of
their ancient liberties and customs by land and water;
ordain the uniformity of weights and measures, vital to
trade; and permit foreign merchants to come into England,
dwell in it, travel over it, and depart from it free from
royal extortion, while, should war break out between their,
country and England, they are to be attached without
hurt to their persons or goods. The king had no doubt
fleeced the foreign merchants; in merely discouraging
them he would have had popular jealousy on his side.

London is treated on the footing of the tenants-in-
chief and exempted from any scutage or aid not imposed
by the national council, besides being assured of all her
municipal privileges and liberties. Other cities and
boroughs, towns and ports are secured in their ancient
customs and liberties, saving which, and the special char-
ters which some of them had obtained, they would be left
under the dominion of their lords, and subject to tallage,
though, as we have seen, they were in the course of eman-

No clauses would be more welcome than those which
limit the hateful domain of forest law, disafforest the enclos-
ures of John's reign, and ordain that an inquest shall be
held on forest usage by twelve sworn knights in each dis-
trict. Such a reform would be doubly blest, since it would
partly extinguish the source, not only of oppression, but
of the lawlessness which oppression provoked, and which,
as the Robin Hood ballads, though of later date, show,
commended itself as irregular heroism to the heart of the

The main political clauses are those which provide for
the calling of the national council and forbid scutages or


aids, that is any feudal impost save the regular aids, to
be levied without its consent. The national council,
besides the heads of the church, archbishops, bishops, and
mitred abbots, comprised the orders of the greater and
the lesser barons. The greater barons were the principal
tenants-in-chief of the crown, holders of large fiefs, who
led their own retainers to the field. The lesser barons
were the smaller landowners, who were called to mili-
tary service by the sheriff. The great barons were to be
summoned personally to the council by royal writ, as
the members of the House of Lords are summoned now.
The lesser barons were to be summoned collectively
through the sheriff. Forms, which we may now call
parliamentary, were to be observed. It is provided that
the summons shall be issued forty days beforehand, that
it shall specify the time, the place, the subjects of delib-
eration, and that members absent after due notice shall be
bound by the determination of those present; an enact-
ment necessary in a time when the representative system
was in its infancy, and when the notion, embodied in the
Polish Liherum Veto^ might still linger, that a freeman
could be bound only by his individual consent. This
assembly was not a parliament; none sat in it but the
tenants-in-chief. Yet it distinctly marks the ground on
which parliament was to be built. The clauses relating
to the national council were afterwards dropped, proba-
bly because the party which framed the Charter had come
into power and did not wish to tie its own hands. Yet the
principles lived and prevailed.

With the clauses prohibiting arbitrary taxation may be
coupled that restraining the royal right of purveyance,
which amounted to arbitrary taxation in kind, and enact-


ing that for all things taken by the king's officers for his
use due payment shall be made. Under the same head
may be placed the clauses forbidding the oppressive exac-
tion of debts due to the Jews, those hated and hapless
instruments of royal extortion.

Of all the articles the most famous, and perhaps the
most important, are those which secure personal liberty,
open trial by peers and unbought justice; "No freeman
shall be arrested, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, ban-
ished, or hurt in his person or his property, nor will we in
person or through our officers lay hands upon him save
by the lawful judgment of his peers, or the law of the
land." "We will to no one sell, deny, or delay right or
justice." The first clause affirms the right of trial by jury.
These principles England, though her government was not
always true to them in practice, steadfastly cherished, while
arbitrary tribunals, arbitrary imprisonments, arbitrary pun-
ishments were the general rule in Europe. An almost
necessary adjunct of open trial by peers, as has been
already said, was the renunciation, so far as law prevailed,
of judicial torture. For the assurance of justice there are
a number of subsidiary provisions. The court of common
pleas for suits between subject and subject is not to follow
the king in his progress through the realm, but to be held
in a fixed place for the convenience of suitors. Cases of
inheritance or presentation to benefices are to be tried
within the county, and two justices are to be sent into
each county four times a year to hold the trials, with four
knights of the county chosen for the purpose. This puts
the institution of itinerant justices on the footing of law.
Fines are to be proportioned to the offence.

A great advance in judicature is made by forbidding


sheriffs, coroners of the king, or constables of castles,
with their private dungeons, to hold pleas of the crown,
that is, to try serious crimes, which are thereby made
over to the judges of the land. Against arbitrary im-
prisonment special security is provided by the enactment
that the writ of inquest of life or limb should be given
without price and never denied, the writ being a precursor
of that of Habeas Corpus. Only to freemen these securi-
ties are given. As yet the villain was not free, but by
fixity of tenure he was entering on the road to freedom.

Personal liberty, again, was enlarged by the clause
permitting any one to leave the kingdom and return at
will unless in case of war, when he may be restrained for
some short space, and for the good of the kingdom. The
only exceptions are prisoners, outlaws, and alien enemies.
It may be surmised that an ecclesiastical hand was here
at work removing a legal barrier against the resort for
judgment to Rome.

What the king grants to his tenants-in-chief they are
bound to grant to their under-tenants. Nor does the
Charter stop at these, or at the burghers and the mer-
chants. It does something even for the villain, including
him in the provisions against excessive fines, and provid-
ing that his instruments of husbandry shall in all cases
be spared. This broad national character of the Charter
and the extension of its benefits to all interests, even to
those of the lowest class, may fairly be ascribed to the
influence of Archbishop Langton, a man of high intelli-
gence and the head of an order both better educated than
the barons and more in sympathy with the people, from
whose rank many of its members and of its chiefs were


The clauses providing for restitution to the Welsh, and
for restoration of hostages and assurances of liberties and
rights to the king of Scots, show that the barons had been
fain to seek aid in those sinister quarters where English re-
bellion was always sure to find support. They might have
pleaded that foreign mercenaries formed the army of the
tyrant. The clause in favour of the king of Scots might
be quoted as implying a connection on his part to the
English monarchy which his own attitude towards John
seems to suggest.

How was the Charter to be upheld ? How was the
king, if he disregarded it, to be coerced ? In these days
it would be done by cutting off the supplies. In those
days it could be done only by authorized force. Twenty-
five barons were appointed conservators of the Charter,
and the king was made to authorize them together with
the whole country (^communa totius tevrce)^ in case of his
default and contumacy, to resort to force, take his castles,
and make war upon him, saving only his own person and
those of his queen and children, till he did right, when
they were to return to their allegiance. The pregnant
phrase communa totius terrce denotes the thoroughly
national character of the movement, proclaims the con-
scious unity of the nation, and shows that race had finally
given way to country, and that the barons, once foreign
conquerors and oppressors, could now act as leaders of
the whole people. The great Charter was published
through the whole realm and all freemen were sworn to
its observance.

When the conference broke up, John, half deposed
by the establishment of the conservators, was left almost
alone. Outwardly he was fair-spoken and compliant.


though he cunningl}^ delayed the restitution of castles
and estates; inwardly he cursed his day and brooded over
plans of counter-revolution and revenge. His intentions
pierced through the disguise of his professions, and the
barons thought it wise to transfer a tournament which,
with the light spirit characteristic, even in serious action,
of a nation's youth, they had proclaimed in honour of
their success, from Stamford to the neighbourhood of the
capital, and to throw a strong garrison under William
D'Albini into Rochester Castle, which commanded the
approach to London on the south. Their suspicions were
well founded. John, as the chronicler says, had resolved
to smite his enemies at once with the spiritual and with
the temporal sword. He had sent to Rome for papal

Online LibraryGoldwin SmithThe United kingdom; a political history → online text (page 10 of 84)