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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Rising of the Baronage against King John
By John Richard Green (1837–1883)
From ‘History of the English People’

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 councilors of the two Henrys. 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 house 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.  1
  John was taken by surprise. He had 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….  2
  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 counseled, as Earl Ranulf and William Marshal counseled, his acceptance of the Charter. None in fact counseled 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 July on 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.  3
  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 shriveled 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.  4
  Its opening indeed is in general terms. The Church had shown its power of self-defense 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 judgment 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.  5

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