What forces fought against the Magna Carta

800 years of Magna Carta - the mother of human rights

How much Johann increased his income overall is illustrated by the so-called pipe rolls, accounting lists of the royal accounting system, in which, among other things, exact records were kept of the income from the feudal fees. These show that not only the fixed taxes of the counties, but also the direct taxes ("tallagia") of the cities were increased. "The bottom line is that the Pipe Rolls recorded an increase in taxes during the reign of Johann by more than 1000 percent compared to the time of Henry II," says Medievalist Martin Aurell, who teaches at the Université de Poitiers.

Anyone who could not pay immediately was deferred, but Johann was unscrupulous enough to use the debts to discipline his vassals by having them collected immediately and in full if a baron had aroused his displeasure. The exercise of royal rule took on increasingly tyrannical traits, and the word "Angevin despotism" had long since made the rounds.

Rebellion of the barons

The situation came to a head when the English army suffered a crushing defeat against Philip II on June 27, 1214 in the Battle of Bouvines in Flanders while attempting to recapture John's French possessions. When the hapless Johann demanded another shield money from his barons, they broke the collar. Outraged at being asked to pay for this war once more, a large number of barons gave up their feudal allegiance to the king.

The Archbishop of Canterbury wants to nail the "despotic lawbreaker" to a guarantee of rights

Those among them who worked towards a compromise prevailed: They achieved that the king was not chased out of the country, but that conditions for a compromise between the barons and the king were formulated in writing. "So in 1215 it was not about overthrowing the balance of power, but about strengthening the rights of the feudal lords vis-à-vis kingship and having them guaranteed by letter and seal," said the English medievalist Natalie Fryde.

Head of this moderate line among the rebels was Stephen Langton, over whose appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury John had argued with the Pope a few years earlier. This highly educated and cosmopolitan cleric, who was familiar with the system of canon law and, as the primate of the English Church, was ultimately responsible for the entire English Church, advised the rebels not to open civil war, but to portray the king as a "despotic lawbreaker" and nailing him to a guarantee of the rights they had over the Crown. "The law stands above the king" - this time-honored principle from the days of the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) had to be secured. King Heinrich I (1100-1135) had confirmed him on his accession to the throne and promised the fiefs that he would respect the rights of the nobility and adhere to his duties as a feudal lord.

The domineering Johann, however, does not want to make such concessions at all. He begins to play for time in the hope that the opposition will collapse. Many of the barons are still undecided and do not want to be drawn into the conflict. Sometimes the conflict also divides families: some sons are on the side of the rebels, their fathers support the king.

At the beginning of May 1215, Stephan Langton presented the king with a document with the demands of the barons ("Articles of the Barons") at a meeting in Windsor Castle - together with their request to confirm them with a letter and seal. Johann rejects the request as presumptuous and outrageous. Thereupon about 40 barons renounce their feudal oath - an open declaration of war.

When more and more knights joined the aristocratic frond, and the city of London with its wealthy merchants also stood by their side, Johann was finally forced to give in. He gives in to the demands of the rebelling barons and contractually guarantees them their rights and "old English freedoms" in a legally binding document.

Shackles for royalty

Of the 63 articles of the Magna Carta Libertatum, more than half deal with feudal complaints. Above all, one turned against the degeneration of feudal services such as inheritance fees, feudal guardianship, marriage permits or shield money to a pure money business. In addition, there were also articles that had cross-class relevance. This included the declaration that in future no tax could be levied "without joint consultation of the kingdom" (Articles 12 and 14) - a principle that made a decisive contribution to the formation of the English Parliament and, more than 500 years later, was also included in the American Declaration of Independence has found. "No taxation without representation": When the English colonies in the New World rose against the motherland almost 250 years ago and finally founded a new nation, the United States of America, there was for political thinkers like Thomas Jefferson in the Magna Carta a clear basis for this public protest.

One of its most important clauses is undoubtedly Article 39, in which everyone is granted legal protection: "No free man should be arrested, imprisoned, robbed of his goods, ostracized, exiled or otherwise attacked [...], except through the lawful judgment of his own kind or by the law of the country ", is written in black letters on beige calf skin. The sentence corresponds in its sense to the right "habeas corpus" of modern jurisprudence, which can be found in the constitutions of many today's states. Anyone who speaks of the Magna Carta as a certificate of freedom means this Article 39, supplemented by Article 40, in which John renounces the viability of justice and guarantees the protection of property. It was the first time that the king had to obey the law and recognize certain rights of his subjects.

Pope Innocent III declared the "shameful and vile" document null and void

In order to monitor the observance of the king's promises, a committee of 25 barons was set up, whose ruling Johann submitted to Article 61. This guardian function established the later right of parliament to limit the power of the king. If the king broke the contract, the barons had the right to resist.

The Magna Carta was certainly a milestone in the development of the rule of law, but at this point in time there was no talk of the beginning of democracy, but rather of the prevention of absolute rule by the crown. What distinguishes the "great deed of freedom" from other legal declarations of the time is the fact that it "was supernatural and supraregional, and that the privileges granted in it were of a general nature and aimed at the general control of central power", according to the English Medievalist James C. Holt. If the barons had previously had their own freedoms confirmed by royal individual privilege, they now faced their king as representatives of the entire rural community ("communa totius terrae").

Royal breach of contract

But the "Catalog of Freedoms", as Thomas Jefferson called the Magna Carta, lasted just two months before Johann rejected the concessions he had made in it. He received support from Pope Innocent III. The man in the Holy See, Johann's liege and patron saint since 1213, declared the "shameful and vile" document null and void. With this power behind him, Johann dares the very last attempt to evade the barons' circumcision of royal rights.

But Rome is far, and the reaction of the barons followed immediately: open civil war broke out. In September 1215 a group of powerful nobles declared John deposed and offered England's crown to the eldest son of France's King Philip II. Crown Prince Ludwig (1187-1226) was married to Blanka of Castile, who was a niece of John and was therefore able to assert claims to the English throne. With 1200 knights in his retinue, the French prince lands in England and marches into London. Johann fought bitterly against his enemies until the late summer of 1216, but did not regain control of his empire - he died a little later, on October 18, at the age of 48, of the dysentery.

In this dramatic hour for England, Johann's nine-year-old son Heinrich III. crowned king. The affairs of state for the underage monarch are carried out by confidants of John, including the knight William von Marshall (1144-1219), who defeated the armies of the rebellious barons and the French at Lincoln in May 1217. However, the foundation stone for this battle was laid on a diplomatic level: Less than a month after Johann's death, the advisors of the young king put the Magna Carta back into force - with the result that the majority of the rebellious barons took his side again. For the English historian Nicholas Vincent, the young king's confirmation of the Magna Carta was "a brilliant move to bring the renegade barons back to the royal camp". Thus the sheet had in favor of Henry III. turned. On September 11, 1217, the Peace of Lambeth came about, in which the French Crown Prince Ludwig undertook to leave England and to renounce his claim to the Crown of England.

The Magna Carta would have remained a stillborn child if it had not been reaffirmed again and again under subsequent kings: up to the 17th century a total of 32 times. In addition, it was repeatedly made known to a wider public since the 13th century. Not least because of this, the "great deed of freedom" becomes a basis of English constitutional law. Still under Johann's successor Heinrich III. (1216-1272) the course is set for an institutionalized consultation of the king and the introduction of a constitutional monarchy. In 1258, the king had to seek advice on all important matters from a parliament formed by 24 noblemen. Seven years later, the former aristocratic council is composed for the first time of freely elected representatives of the cities and the landed aristocracy, who advise the king and approve taxes.

The Magna Carta marks the beginning of a long political development in England, during which the king's rights were gradually curtailed and his executive powers were increasingly restricted by parliamentary control. The end of this development was marked by the "Bill of Rights" from 1689, in which King Wilhelm III. obliged to pass laws from now on only together with the representatives of the people.

But the power of the Magna Carta reached far beyond the island. It influenced the doctrine of the state philosophers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, according to which every government must protect the rights of its citizens: thoughts that strongly influenced both the American and French revolutions - and the development of Western democracies as a whole. As the first written formulation of the fundamental freedoms of every human being, the 800-year-old Magna Carta Libertatum - and especially its Article 39 - has become an icon of freedom. One can only hope that the "great deed of freedoms" will herald the need to keep the power of those in power within limits for the next 800 years.