History of the English People, Volume I (of 8) - Early England, 449-1071; Foreign Kings, 1071-1204; The Charter, 1204-1216
by John Richard Green
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[Sidenote: Stephen Langton]

But it was not in Geoffry Fitz-Peter that English freedom was to find its champion and the baronage their leader. From the moment of his landing in England Stephen Langton had taken up the constitutional position of the Primate in upholding the old customs and rights of the realm against the personal despotism of the kings. As Anselm had withstood William the Red, as Theobald had withstood Stephen, so Langton prepared to withstand and rescue his country from the tyranny of John. He had already forced him to swear to observe the laws of Edward the Confessor, in other words the traditional liberties of the realm. When the baronage refused to sail for Poitou he compelled the king to deal with them not by arms but by process of law. But the work which he now undertook was far greater and weightier than this. The pledges of Henry the First had long been forgotten when the Justiciar brought them to light, but Langton saw the vast importance of such a precedent. At the close of the month he produced Henry's charter in a fresh gathering of barons at St. Paul's, and it was at once welcomed as a base for the needed reforms. From London Langton hastened to the king, whom he reached at Northampton on his way to attack the nobles of the north, and wrested from him a promise to bring his strife with them to legal judgement before assailing them in arms. With his allies gathering abroad John had doubtless no wish to be entangled in a long quarrel at home, and the Archbishop's mediation allowed him to withdraw with seeming dignity. After a demonstration therefore at Durham John marched hastily south again, and reached London in October. His Justiciar at once laid before him the claims of the Councils of St. Alban's and St. Paul's; but the death of Geoffry at this juncture freed him from the pressure which his minister was putting upon him. "Now, by God's feet," cried John, "I am for the first time King and Lord of England," and he entrusted the vacant justiciarship to a Poitevin, Peter des Roches, the Bishop of Winchester, whose temper was in harmony with his own. But the death of Geoffry only called the Archbishop to the front, and Langton at once demanded the king's assent to the charter of Henry the First. In seizing on this charter as a basis for national action Langton showed a political ability of the highest order. The enthusiasm with which its recital was welcomed showed the sagacity with which the Archbishop had chosen his ground. From that moment the baronage was no longer drawn together in secret conspiracies by a sense of common wrong or a vague longing for common deliverance: they were openly united in a definite claim of national freedom and national law.

[Sidenote: Bouvines]

John could as yet only meet the claim by delay. His policy had still to wait for its fruits at Rome, his diplomacy to reap its harvest in Flanders, ere he could deal with England. From the hour of his submission to the Papacy his one thought had been that of vengeance on the barons who, as he held, had betrayed him; but vengeance was impossible till he should return a conqueror from the fields of France. It was a sense of this danger which nerved the baronage to their obstinate refusal to follow him over sea: but furious as he was at their resistance, the Archbishop's interposition condemned John still to wait for the hour of his revenge. In the spring of 1214 he crossed with what forces he could gather to Poitou, rallied its nobles round him, passed the Loire in triumph, and won back again Angers, the home of his race. At the same time Otto and the Count of Flanders, their German and Flemish knighthood strengthened by reinforcements from Boulogne as well as by a body of English troops under the Earl of Salisbury, threatened France from the north. For the moment Philip seemed lost: and yet on the fortunes of Philip hung the fortunes of English freedom. But in this crisis of her fate, France was true to herself and her king. From every borough of Northern France the townsmen marched to his rescue, and the village priests led their flocks to battle with the Church-banners flying at their head. The two armies met at the close of July near the bridge of Bouvines, between Lille and Tournay, and from the first the day went against the allies. The Flemish knights were the first to fly; then the Germans in the centre of the host were crushed by the overwhelming numbers of the French; last of all the English on the right of it were broken by a fierce onset of the Bishop of Beauvais who charged mace in hand and struck the Earl of Salisbury to the ground. The news of this complete overthrow reached John in the midst of his triumphs in the South, and scattered his hopes to the winds. He was at once deserted by the Poitevin nobles; and a hasty retreat alone enabled him to return in October, baffled and humiliated, to his island kingdom.

[Sidenote: Rising of the Baronage]

His return forced on the crisis to which events had so long been drifting. The victory at Bouvines gave strength to his opponents. The open resistance of the northern barons nerved the rest of their order to action. The great houses who had cast away their older feudal traditions for a more national policy were drawn by the crisis into close union with the families which had sprung from the ministers and councillors of the two Henries. To the first group belonged such men as Saher de Quinci, the Earl of Winchester, Geoffrey of Mandeville, Earl of Essex, the Earl of Clare, Fulk Fitz-Warin, William Mallet, the houses of Fitz-Alan and Gant. Among the second group were Henry Bohun and Roger Bigod, the Earls of Hereford and Norfolk, the younger William Marshal, and Robert de Vere. Robert Fitz-Walter, who took the command of their united force, represented both parties equally, for he was sprung from the Norman house of Brionne, while the Justiciar of Henry the Second, Richard de Lucy, had been his grandfather. Secretly, and on the pretext of pilgrimage, these nobles met at St. Edmundsbury, resolute to bear no longer with John's delays. If he refused to restore their liberties they swore to make war on him till he confirmed them by Charter under the king's seal, and they parted to raise forces with the purpose of presenting their demands at Christmas. John, knowing nothing of the coming storm, pursued his policy of winning over the Church by granting it freedom of election, while he embittered still more the strife with his nobles by demanding scutage from the northern nobles who had refused to follow him to Poitou. But the barons were now ready to act, and early in January in the memorable year 1215 they appeared in arms to lay, as they had planned, their demands before the king.

[Sidenote: John deserted]

John was taken by surprise. He asked for a truce till Easter-tide, and spent the interval in fevered efforts to avoid the blow. Again he offered freedom to the Church, and took vows as a Crusader against whom war was a sacrilege, while he called for a general oath of allegiance and fealty from the whole body of his subjects. But month after month only showed the king the uselessness of further resistance. Though Pandulf was with him, his vassalage had as yet brought little fruit in the way of aid from Rome; the commissioners whom he sent to plead his cause at the shire-courts brought back news that no man would help him against the charter that the barons claimed: and his efforts to detach the clergy from the league of his opponents utterly failed. The nation was against the king. He was far indeed from being utterly deserted. His ministers still clung to him, men such as Geoffrey de Lucy, Geoffrey de Furnival, Thomas Basset, and William Briwere, statesmen trained in the administrative school of his father and who, dissent as they might from John's mere oppression, still looked on the power of the Crown as the one barrier against feudal anarchy: and beside them stood some of the great nobles of royal blood, his father's bastard Earl William of Salisbury, his cousin Earl William of Warenne, and Henry Earl of Cornwall, a grandson of Henry the First. With him too remained Ranulf, Earl of Chester, and the wisest and noblest of the barons, William Marshal the elder, Earl of Pembroke. William Marshal had shared in the rising of the younger Henry against Henry the Second, and stood by him as he died; he had shared in the overthrow of William Longchamp and in the outlawry of John. He was now an old man, firm, as we shall see in his after-course, to recall the government to the path of freedom and law, but shrinking from a strife which might bring back the anarchy of Stephen's day, and looking for reforms rather in the bringing constitutional pressure to bear upon the king than in forcing them from him by arms.

[Sidenote: John yields]

But cling as such men might to John, they clung to him rather as mediators than adherents. Their sympathies went with the demands of the barons when the delay which had been granted was over and the nobles again gathered in arms at Brackley in Northamptonshire to lay their claims before the King. Nothing marks more strongly the absolutely despotic idea of his sovereignty which John had formed than the passionate surprise which breaks out in his reply. "Why do they not ask for my kingdom?" he cried. "I will never grant such liberties as will make me a slave!" The imperialist theories of the lawyers of his father's court had done their work. Held at bay by the practical sense of Henry, they had told on the more headstrong nature of his sons. Richard and John both held with Glanvill that the will of the prince was the law of the land; and to fetter that will by the customs and franchises which were embodied in the barons' claims seemed to John a monstrous usurpation of his rights. But no imperialist theories had touched the minds of his people. The country rose as one man at his refusal. At the close of May London threw open her gates to the forces of the barons, now arrayed under Robert Fitz-Walter as "Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church." Exeter and Lincoln followed the example of the capital; promises of aid came from Scotland and Wales; the northern barons marched hastily under Eustace de Vesci to join their comrades in London. Even the nobles who had as yet clung to the king, but whose hopes of conciliation were blasted by his obstinacy, yielded at last to the summons of the "Army of God." Pandulf indeed and Archbishop Langton still remained with John, but they counselled, as Earl Ranulf and William Marshal counselled, his acceptance of the Charter. None in fact counselled its rejection save his new Justiciar, the Poitevin Peter des Roches, and other foreigners who knew the barons purposed driving them from the land. But even the number of these was small; there was a moment when John found himself with but seven knights at his back and before him a nation in arms. Quick as he was, he had been taken utterly by surprise. It was in vain that in the short respite he had gained from Christmas to Easter he had summoned mercenaries to his aid and appealed to his new suzerain, the Pope. Summons and appeal were alike too late. Nursing wrath in his heart, John bowed to necessity and called the barons to a conference on an island in the Thames, between Windsor and Staines, near a marshy meadow by the river side, the meadow of Runnymede. The king encamped on one bank of the river, the barons covered the flat of Runnymede on the other. Their delegates met on the 15th of June in the island between them, but the negotiations were a mere cloak to cover John's purpose of unconditional submission. The Great Charter was discussed and agreed to in a single day.

[Sidenote: The Great Charter]

Copies of it were made and sent for preservation to the cathedrals and churches, and one copy may still be seen in the British Museum, injured by age and fire, but with the royal seal still hanging from the brown, shrivelled parchment. It is impossible to gaze without reverence on the earliest monument of English freedom which we can see with our own eyes and touch with our own hands, the great Charter to which from age to age men have looked back as the groundwork of English liberty. But in itself the Charter was no novelty, nor did it claim to establish any new constitutional principles. The Charter of Henry the First formed the basis of the whole, and the additions to it are for the most part formal recognitions of the judicial and administrative changes introduced by Henry the Second. What was new in it was its origin. In form, like the Charter on which it was based, it was nothing but a royal grant. In actual fact it was a treaty between the whole English people and its king. In it England found itself for the first time since the Conquest a nation bound together by common national interests, by a common national sympathy. In words which almost close the Charter, the "community of the whole land" is recognized as the great body from which the restraining power of the baronage takes its validity. There is no distinction of blood or class, of Norman or not Norman, of noble or not noble. All are recognized as Englishmen, the rights of all are owned as English rights. Bishops and nobles claimed and secured at Runnymede the rights not of baron and churchman only but those of freeholder and merchant, of townsman and villein. The provisions against wrong and extortion which the barons drew up as against the king for themselves they drew up as against themselves for their tenants. Based too as it professed to be on Henry's Charter it was far from being a mere copy of what had gone before. The vague expressions of the old Charter were now exchanged for precise and elaborate provisions. The bonds of unwritten custom which the older grant did little more than recognize had proved too weak to hold the Angevins; and the baronage set them aside for the restraints of written and defined law. It is in this way that the Great Charter marks the transition from the age of traditional rights, preserved in the nation's memory and officially declared by the Primate, to the age of written legislation, of Parliaments and Statutes, which was to come.

Its opening indeed is in general terms. The Church had shown its power of self-defence in the struggle over the interdict, and the clause which recognized its rights alone retained the older and general form. But all vagueness ceases when the Charter passes on to deal with the rights of Englishmen at large, their right to justice, to security of person and property, to good government. "No freeman," ran a memorable article that lies at the base of our whole judicial system, "shall be seized or imprisoned, or dispossessed, or outlawed, or in any way brought to ruin: we will not go against any man nor send against him, save by legal judgement of his peers or by the law of the land." "To no man will we sell," runs another, "or deny, or delay, right or justice." The great reforms of the past reigns were now formally recognized; judges of assize were to hold their circuits four times in the year, and the King's Court was no longer to follow the king in his wanderings over the realm but to sit in a fixed place. But the denial of justice under John was a small danger compared with the lawless exactions both of himself and his predecessor. Richard had increased the amount of the scutage which Henry the Second had introduced, and applied it to raise funds for his ransom. He had restored the Danegeld, or land-tax, so often abolished, under the new name of "carucage," had seized the wool of the Cistercians and the plate of the churches, and rated movables as well as land. John had again raised the rate of scutage, and imposed aids, fines, and ransoms at his pleasure without counsel of the baronage. The Great Charter met this abuse by a provision on which our constitutional system rests. "No scutage or aid [other than the three customary feudal aids] shall be imposed in our realm save by the common council of the realm"; and to this Great Council it was provided that prelates and the greater barons should be summoned by special writ, and all tenants in chief through the sheriffs and bailiffs, at least forty days before. The provision defined what had probably been the common usage of the realm; but the definition turned it into a national right, a right so momentous that on it rests our whole Parliamentary life. Even the baronage seem to have been startled when they realized the extent of their claim; and the provision was dropped from the later issue of the Charter at the outset of the next reign. But the clause brought home to the nation at large their possession of a right which became dearer as years went by. More and more clearly the nation discovered that in these simple words lay the secret of political power. It was the right of self-taxation that England fought for under Earl Simon as she fought for it under Hampden. It was the establishment of this right which established English freedom.

The rights which the barons claimed for themselves they claimed for the nation at large. The boon of free and unbought justice was a boon for all, but a special provision protected the poor. The forfeiture of the freeman on conviction of felony was never to include his tenement, or that of the merchant his wares, or that of the countryman, as Henry the Second had long since ordered, his wain. The means of actual livelihood were to be left even to the worst. The seizure of provisions, the exaction of forced labour, by royal officers was forbidden; and the abuses of the forest system were checked by a clause which disafforested all forests made in John's reign. The under-tenants were protected against all lawless exactions of their lords in precisely the same terms as these were protected against the lawless exactions of the Crown. The towns were secured in the enjoyment of their municipal privileges, their freedom from arbitrary taxation, their rights of justice, of common deliberation, of regulation of trade. "Let the city of London have all its old liberties and its free customs, as well by land as by water. Besides this, we will and grant that all other cities, and boroughs, and towns, and ports, have all their liberties and free customs." The influence of the trading class is seen in two other enactments by which freedom of journeying and trade was secured to foreign merchants, and an uniformity of weights and measures was ordered to be enforced throughout the realm.

[Sidenote: Innocent annuls the Charter]

There remained only one question, and that the most difficult of all; the question how to secure this order which the Charter established in the actual government of the realm. It was easy to sweep away the immediate abuses; the hostages were restored to their homes, the foreigners banished by a clause in the Charter from the country. But it was less easy to provide means for the control of a king whom no man could trust. By the treaty as settled at Runnymede a council of twenty-five barons were to be chosen from the general body of their order to enforce on John the observance of the Charter, with the right of declaring war on the king should its provisions be infringed, and it was provided that the Charter should not only be published throughout the whole country but sworn to at every hundred-mote and town-mote by order from the king. "They have given me five-and-twenty over-kings," cried John in a burst of fury, flinging himself on the floor and gnawing sticks and straw in his impotent rage. But the rage soon passed into the subtle policy of which he was a master. After a few days he left Windsor; and lingered for months along the southern shore, waiting for news of the aid he had solicited from Rome and from the Continent. It was not without definite purpose that he had become the vassal of the Papacy. While Innocent was dreaming of a vast Christian Empire with the Pope at its head to enforce justice and religion on his under-kings, John believed that the Papal protection would enable him to rule as tyrannically as he would. The thunders of the Papacy were to be ever at hand for his protection, as the armies of England are at hand to protect the vileness and oppression of a Turkish Sultan or a Nizam of Hyderabad. His envoys were already at Rome, pleading for a condemnation of the Charter. The after action of the Papacy shows that Innocent was moved by no hostility to English freedom. But he was indignant that a matter which might have been brought before his court of appeal as overlord should have been dealt with by armed revolt, and in this crisis both his imperious pride and the legal tendency of his mind swayed him to the side of the king who submitted to his justice. He annulled the Great Charter by a bull in August, and at the close of the year excommunicated the barons.

[Sidenote: Landing of Lewis]

His suspension of Stephen Langton from the exercise of his office as Primate was a more fatal blow. Langton hurried to Rome, and his absence left the barons without a head at a moment when the very success of their efforts was dividing them. Their forces were already disorganized when autumn brought a host of foreign soldiers from over sea to the king's standard. After starving Rochester into submission John found himself strong enough to march ravaging through the Midland and Northern counties, while his mercenaries spread like locusts over the whole face of the land. From Berwick the king turned back triumphant to coop up his enemies in London while fresh Papal excommunications fell on the barons and the city. But the burghers set Innocent at defiance. "The ordering of secular matters appertaineth not to the Pope," they said, in words that seem like mutterings of the coming Lollardism; and at the advice of Simon Langton, the Archbishop's brother, bells swung out and mass was celebrated as before. Success however was impossible for the undisciplined militia of the country and the towns against the trained forces of the king, and despair drove the barons to listen to Fitz-Walter and the French party in their ranks, and to seek aid from over sea. Philip had long been waiting the opportunity for his revenge upon John. In the April of 1216 his son Lewis accepted the crown in spite of Innocent's excommunications, and landed soon after in Kent with a considerable force. As the barons had foreseen, the French mercenaries who constituted John's host refused to fight against the French sovereign and the whole aspect of affairs was suddenly reversed. Deserted by the bulk of his troops, the king was forced to fall rapidly back on the Welsh Marches, while his rival entered London and received the submission of the larger part of England. Only Dover held out obstinately against Lewis. By a series of rapid marches John succeeded in distracting the plans of the barons and in relieving Lincoln; then after a short stay at Lynn he crossed the Wash in a fresh movement to the north. In crossing however his army was surprised by the tide, and his baggage with the royal treasures washed away. Fever seized the baffled tyrant as he reached the Abbey of Swineshead, his sickness was inflamed by a gluttonous debauch, and on the 19th of October John breathed his last at Newark.


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