Patriots and Tyrants - Marion Lansing

King John and the Barons

King John of England was a tyrant, and a wicked man besides,—one of the worst kings that England ever had. He tried to steal the kingship from his brother Richard the Lion-hearted while Richard was away at the Crusades, and he even offered the emperor of Germany money to keep Richard in prison, that he might still be king. When he became king, he had the child Arthur, his only heir, killed, that none might take the throne from him, and for this he was put out of the church by the pope; and all through these years he tyrannized over his people in every way.

Archbishop Stephen Langton had stood out against him in the earlier years of his reign, and when things became very bad in England, he privately called some of the nobles together after a church assembly. When the nobles and barons were gathered, Stephen Langton told them that he had found a most precious thing, the charter of liberty which the good King Henry, the son of William the Conqueror, had given to the people. It was only a sheet of parchment, but it was a written statement by the king of the rights and liberties of the people under him, and it meant that these rights should be observed by one king after another.

"With the help of this," said the archbishop, "we should be able to get back our rights."

Then all who were assembled in the church, commencing with those of highest rank, swore on the great altar that if the king refused to grant these liberties and laws, they themselves would withdraw from their allegiance to him, and make war on him, till he should, by a charter under his own seal, confirm to them everything they required. Finally it was agreed by all that after Christmas they should go together to the king and demand the confirmation of these liberties, and that they should in the meantime provide themselves with horses and arms "so that if the king should endeavor to depart from his oath, they might, by taking his castles, compel him to satisfy their demands; and having arranged this, each man returned home."

Only a very wicked king could have made the nobles take this stand, for they were ready to abide in all things by the will of a just ruler. But in those days no man's property nor life nor honor was safe. The whole nation was made poor by the demands of the king for money, and by his commands that men leave their homes and their work to come and serve as soldiers in his wars.

This then is the story as it is told in the chronicles of England. At Christmas, in the year 1215, the nobles came to King John in gay military array and made of him their demand. He, hearing the bold tone of the barons in making their demand, much feared an attack from them, as he saw that they were prepared for battle. He therefore asked time for deliberation, and a truce was fixed till the end of Easter.

Again in Easter week of this same year the nobles assembled with horses and arms, for they had now induced almost all the nobility of the kingdom to join them, and constituted a very large army. The king was awaiting the arrival of his nobles in Oxford. He sent messengers to inquire what the laws and liberties were which they demanded. The barons then delivered to the messengers a paper containing the laws and ancient customs of the kingdom, which they desired to have renewed and established. The archbishop with his fellow messengers took this paper back to the king, and read to him the heads of the paper, one by one, till he had heard it throughout. But the king, when he heard the purport of these heads, derisively said, with a great show of indignation, "Why among these demands did not the barons ask for my kingdom also?" And with many angry words he declared with an oath that never so long as he was king would he grant them liberties which would take away from him the right to do as he pleased, and make him their slave.

The barons, when they received the scornful message of the king, began to make war. They took the king's castles and the king's towns, and marched nearer and nearer to London. As they were drawing near they received a secret message from the nobles of London, which was the head city of the kingdom, saying that if they wished to get into that city, they should come there immediately. They marched the whole night and arrived early in the morning at London, where they found the gates set wide open.

King John, when he saw that he was deserted by almost all his nobles, yielded, telling the barons that for the sake of peace he would willingly grant the laws and liberties which they required. He also sent them word to appoint a fitting day and place to meet and carry all these matters into effect; and they, with great joy, appointed the fifteenth day of June for the king to meet them at a meadow called Runnymede, near the royal castle of Windsor.

John I of England

There they met on that June day, and in the field of Runnymede, the king and the barons of England signed the parchment of the Magna Charta, the Great Charter, which may be seen to-day, torn and yellowed and shriveled with age, in the British Museum in London,—the most precious piece of paper in all England, for with it began English liberty. It was a long paper, and many parts of it applied only to that time, but there were two things which we must notice as the beginnings of English law, on which all our modern rule of government is built: No man might be arrested and thrown into prison without being tried before his peers, that is, before men of his own class,—his equals. In that provision we have personal liberty. And second, the king could not raise any great amount of money by taxing the people without the consent of the common council of the kingdom. Do you remember how the Teutons—Hermann and his Germans, and Wittekind and his Saxons had always rebelled against taxation by the Romans or the Franks? They were right; and yet there must be taxes (money paid into the common treasury by the people) if there was to be any government at all. The difficulty was settled by the English on the field of Runnymede. The people must consent to be taxed, or, as our fathers put it in the days of the American Revolution, there must be no taxation without representation. That was political liberty.

No one of those present at this assembly supposed that King John liked to sign this Magna Charta; but when he did it quietly and without any outward sign of opposition, they "hoped he was inclined henceforth to all gentleness and peace. But far otherwise was it. Some of the people said gruntingly and with much laughter and derision, 'Behold this is the twenty-fifth king of England; and lo! he is not now a king any longer.'"

That was not true, for he was only deprived of the power to be a tyrant king, but it was just the way John felt, and right in the midst of the company he fell into a rage, and "commenced gnashing his teeth, scowling with his eyes, and, seizing sticks and limbs of trees, began to gnaw them and break them in pieces to vent his rage." Truly he was almost beside himself with anger, this tyrant king who had been forced in spite of himself to give to his people a Great Charter of Liberty.