Magna Carta 800 years

Inevitably, many myths have grown around Magna Carta, such as King John signing the charter on an island in the River Thames at Runnymede, so ensuring the freedom of the individual. Much of this is untrue. Another misconception is that only one copy of Magna Carta exists. Even its name was not used at the outset.

Magna Carta Notice

The United States commemorates Magna Carta with an oak tree at Runnymede

Feudal system…

In 1199 John was anointed and crowned king, giving him divine sanction to rule. The ‘feudal system’ (introduced after the Norman Conquest in 1066) controlled English society – ‘feudal’ was a term coined centuries later from the Latin feudum, meaning ‘fief’ or land granted to a man in return for service. At the top was the king, who laid claim to much of the land in the kingdom. He granted substantial parcels of land and castles to the barons or nobility, who were his ‘tenants-in-chief’. In return, they owed him money and military services, usually by providing a number of armed knights for a certain period each year. In return for their military service, the knights were granted land by the barons. Feudal land grants and obligations were hereditary.

At the bottom were the ordinary people, the unfree peasants known as serfs or villeins (from the medieval Latin for ‘field labourer’). They provided food and services in return for land (which was plentiful as England had a population of a mere 3 million in 1215). Villeins were tied to the land and their lord.

Kings came to rely more on professional mercenary soldiers, who were paid in cash, and so King John demanded more money from his barons for his military campaigns in France – all wasted because by 1206 he had lost the vast majority of the Angevin empire.

King John

King John

… and feuds

John next fell out with Pope Innocent III over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The pope retaliated by placing the whole of England under an interdict and excommunicated the king in 1209. By early 1213 King Philip II of France was set to invade England, but John informed the pope that he would agree to the appointment of Stephen Langton as archbishop and acknowledge the pope as his feudal overlord. Philip’s plans were thwarted, especially when John’s newly formed navy of galleys destroyed his invasion fleet in May 1213.

In July 1213, Langton landed in England and a month later met the most powerful church and secular leaders to discuss how to restore the country. Afterwards, at a secret meeting with a select group of barons, he sowed the seeds of Magna Carta. The story is mentioned in one contemporary source, the ‘Flowers of History’ written by Roger of Wendover, an obscure author of historical chronicles who was probably a monk in the abbey at St Albans. Langton read to them an old forgotten charter of King Henry I, the clauses of which foreshadowed those of Magna Carta.

By February 1214 John was ready to invade France to recover his lost empire, but growing discontent and an atmosphere of rebellion were evident among his barons. Many of them resented the money he was demanding for this campaign, particularly as he was constantly inventing new taxes. The introduction of customs duties on imported and exported goods was especially disliked, because many barons were engaged in trade. Scutage, literally ‘shield money’, was another payment made by the barons instead of providing armed men in time of war, and John raised the rate to an unprecedented level in order to fund his army. Some barons refused to pay or to accompany the expedition, and some gave an outright refusal to provide any military support, ignoring their feudal obligations.

John’s campaign went well at first. By the end of June he had retaken Anjou, but was forced to retreat after the Angevin nobles failed to support him. On 27th July 1214 the bulk of his German and Flemish allies and mercenaries were defeated by Philip II at the Battle of Bouvines in Flanders (now north-east France). Pitched battles were then rare, as most conflicts took the form of sieges that allowed time for manoeuvring and negotiation. As part of the peace negotiations, John was forced to return Anjou to Philip and also pay him compensation.


King John arrived back in England in October, and the barons were ready for rebellion. At his Christmas court in London, John was confronted by a group of barons who demanded that he confirm the laws of King Edward the Confessor and the charter of Henry I. John promised an enquiry, and it was agreed to hold further negotiations on 6th January 1215, but that meeting ended in deadlock.

In March John took an oath to become a crusader, a clever move that strengthened his influence with the pope and guaranteed him legal immunities until his return from the Holy Land. The pope ordered the barons to cease armed resistance or face excommunication, but as it took some six weeks to carry messages from Rome, this papal order only reached them at the end of April. On 3rd May the barons renounced their allegiance to the king and presented him with a list of their demands. England was now in a state of civil war.

On 17th May 1215 rebel forces marched into London and took control. This was such a key stronghold that other barons, who until then had maintained a superficial loyalty to the king, defected to the rebel side. John was cornered, and so he instructed Langton to organise a truce. Royalists and rebels drafted a preliminary agreement called the ‘Articles of the Barons’, which was the forerunner of Magna Carta. John set his seal to this draft agreement, and frenetic discussions continued, turning its 49 clauses into the document that we know as Magna Carta.


On 15th June it was time for King John to formally accept the final version of Magna Carta. He made his way from Windsor castle to a field by the River Thames which, according to the charter, was called Ronimed – Runnymede. The rebel barons came from their base at Staines, a small town on the north side of the Thames. The name ‘Runnymede’ is possibly Anglo-Saxon, meaning ‘the meadow where councils were held’ – a traditional meeting place.

Windsor Castle keep

The stone keep at Windsor Castle

This rural landscape had a few scattered hamlets and some larger settlements, like Windsor and Staines. Buildings were of timber, with occasional formidable exceptions in stone, such as the castle at Windsor that was visible for miles around. In sight of Runnymede was the priory of Ankerwycke, founded six decades earlier for Benedictine nuns. Runnymede was then meadowland, where two opposing groups could meet without fear of ambush. Today, the National Trust land has modern memorials, though much of the area between Staines and Windsor is built up and criss-crossed by busy roads, while gravel pits and reservoirs have altered its appearance.

There are no eyewitness accounts of the events at Runnymede, but many writers have tried to capture the mood, including Jerome K Jerome in his Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889:

It is noon, and we and all the people have been waiting patient for many an hour, and the rumour has run round that slippery John has again escaped from the Barons’ grasp, and has stolen away … Not so! Far down the road a little cloud of dust has risen, and draws nearer and grows larger, and the pattering of many hoofs grows louder, and in and out between the scattered groups of drawn-up men there pushes on its way a brilliant cavalcade of gay-dressed lords and knights. And front and rear, and either flank, there ride the yeomen of the Barons, and in the midst King John.

John did not actually sit down and sign the charter. There was no ceremonial sealing, no exchange of contracts. Although the physical document has become a symbol of freedom, at the time it was really the agreement with the barons and the oath-taking by the king that were important. This single day at Runnymede was to be one of the most momentous events in history.