Front Matter Early Times The Druids The Britons Caesar in Britain Queen Boadicea The Great Walls The Great Irish Saint The Anglo-Saxons Brave King Arthur The Laws of the Saxons The Story of St Augustine Three Great Men The Danish Pirates King Alfred and the Cakes Alfred conquers the Danes A King's Narrow Escape The King and the Outlaw The Monasteries An Unlucky Couple St Dunstan King Canute and the Waves A Saxon Nobleman Lady Godiva's Ride The Battle of Hastings The Conquest Lords and Vassals Death of William The Brothers' Quarrels Arms and Armour The "White Ship" Matilda's Narrow Escapes Story of Fair Rosamond Thomas a Becket Murder of Thomas a Becket Richard's Adventures Richard and the Saracens The Faithful Minstrel Death of Richard The Murder of Arthur The Great Charter The Rule of Henry III A Race Persecution of the Jews The Conquest of Wales A Quarrel with France The Coronation Stone The Insolent Favourite Bruce and the Spider Death of Edward II The Murderers punished The Battle of Crecy The Siege of Calais The Age of Chivalry The Battle of Poitiers The Peasants' Revolt Richard's Presence of Mind A Tiny Queen Henry's Troubles Madcap Harry A Glorious Reign The Maid of Orleans The War of the Roses The Queen and the Brigand The Triumph of the Yorks The Princes in the Tower Richard's Punishment Two Pretenders A Grasping King Field of the Cloth of Gold The New Opinions Death of Wolsey Henry's Wives The King and the Painter A Boy King Lady Jane Grey The Death of Cranmer A Clever Queen Elizabeth's Lovers Mary, Queen of Scots Captivity of Mary Stuart Wreck of the Spanish Armada The Elizabethan Age Death of Elizabeth A Scotch King The Gunpowder Plot Sir Walter Raleigh King and Parliament Cavaliers and Roundheads "Remember" The Royal Oak The Commonwealth The Restoration Plague and Fire The Merry Monarch James driven out of England A Terrible Massacre William's Wars The Duke of Marlborough The Taking of Gibraltar The South Sea Bubble Bonny Prince Charlie Black Hole of Calcutta Loss of the Colonies The Battle of the Nile Nelson's Last Signal The Battle of Waterloo First Gentleman of Europe Childhood of Queen Victoria The Queen's Marriage Wars in Victoria's Reign The Jubilee

Story of the English - Helene Guerber

The Great Charter

Now, although the English had no respect for John, they did not want to give up their country to the French king, so they began to rally around their monarch to help him defend the country. The pope then offered to forbid Philip to invade England, provided John would let Stephen Langton be Archbishop of Canterbury, do homage to the pope for the kingdom of England, and promise to pay a yearly tribute.

Promises were very easy to make, according to John's ideas; so he consented to everything. He made Langton archbishop, humbly laid his crown at the feet of the legate (the pope's messenger), allowed him to trample it without wincing, and received it from his hand once more, after solemnly promising to be the faithful vassal of the pope.

The interdict was recalled, Philip was forbidden to invade England, and John fancied that all was well. But the English barons were disgusted with him for having yielded to such shameful conditions. They had always prided themselves upon living in a free country, and they did not like to be considered the vassals of the pope. Besides, they were indignant at the way in which John governed, and at his methods for getting always more money, for you must know that John was as miserly as he was untruthful.

Whenever John heard that a Jew had become very rich by trading, he used to send for the unfortunate man and torture him until he promised to pay a large sum of money for his release. We are told that he imprisoned one wealthy Jew, and had one of his teeth pulled out every day. At first the man stood this very bravely, but when seven teeth were gone, he gladly paid a large sum to keep the rest and be set free.

The example set by the king was followed by the barons; and as a customary mode of torture was to drag the Jews over a bed of red-hot coals to make them give up their money, some people say that it gave rise to the expression "to haul over the coals," which is now often used to describe a severe and unsparing reprimand.

John, angry with Philip for taking Normandy and for being so ready to invade England, made an alliance with the Emperor of Germany and the Count of Flanders, and attacked France. But the English and their allies were defeated in the battle of Bouvines, in 1214.

Battle of Bouvines


During John's absence, changes had been going on in England. First, the new primate, Langton, made some alterations in religious matters, besides dividing the Bible into chapters and verses as it is now. Then the barons found the charter granted by Stephen and Henry, and decided that its promises ought to be kept, and that their rights ought to be protected by a few more laws.

The result of this was that the barons drew up a new code or set of laws, called the Magna Charta, or Great Charter, in which the rights of the king and of all the different classes of the people were clearly set forth; and when John came home, after the battle of Bouvines, they asked him to sign it.

The king angrily refused, whereupon all the barons left him and threatened to choose another king. Left with only seven followers, John concluded he must yield; so, going out to meet the revolted barons on Runnymede (a meadow where the Saxons had often assembled), he reluctantly signed the Magna Charta, in 1215.

This code of laws is considered the foundation of English liberty, and has been very carefully preserved. It decreed, among many other things, that no man should be imprisoned unless he were tried and found guilty, and that girls of noble rank might marry without the king's consent.

From Runnymede John retired to the Isle of Wight, whence he sent a messenger to the pope, with a copy of the charter, a long letter of complaint against the barons, and a request to be freed from his promise, which he said had been wrung from him by force. The pope, knowing many of the barons were against him, sent a bull, or papal decree, excommunicating the noblemen and saying that John need not keep any of the promises he had made to his rebellious subjects.

King John


This bull made the barons so angry that they vowed to fight for their rights. Some called a French prince into the country, offered him the crown, and hailed him as king in London. Others refused to accept him, and in the midst of the civil war which ensued, the last remnants of John's army deserted him, and his baggage and all his treasures were swept away by the rising tide as he was crossing the Wash.

John himself barely escaped sharing the fate of his money, and he felt so badly over his loss that he rode on to a priory, where he fell ill and died. Some people say that he died of grief, others that he ate too many peaches and pears and drank too much cider, but a few declare that the prior poisoned him by order of the barons.

Although John was only forty-nine years old, the English were glad to be rid of him. They did not respect a king who, besides being mean and selfish, was always untruthful, and they gladly hailed as monarch his little son Henry, who was then only eight or nine years old.