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Magna Carta |
The man who made the law rule

Magna Carta is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 139, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Archbishop Langton riled first the king, then the pope, but his Magna Carta remained

Magna Carta - The man who made the law rule

Magna Carta - The man who made the law rule
A reluctant King John signs the Great Charter (or Magna Carta) at Runnymede in 1215 in this nineteenth-century engraving by an unknown artist.

In popular lore, modern democracy’s founding document is the Magna Carta, and it came about when a bad king was defeated by a good archbishop. Popular lore is probably right, though the barons who signed the Great Charter could not have imagined modern democracy and would have been horrified if they had.

However, John I of England, successor to Richard the Lionheart, by all but the most recent accounts, deserved the reputation the old rhyme bestows: “John, John, bad King John, shamed the throne that he sat on.” He combined cowardice, arrogance, and tyranny–a fat, black-bearded man who, it was said, made an enemy a day, although late-twentieth-century scholarship treated him more positively.

Stephen Langton, made archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Innocent III, was a quietly charismatic product of Lincolnshire, as respected by England’s barons as John was loathed. John had rejected the pope’s choice of Langton for archbishop, and in response Innocent had imposed an interdict on England prohibiting all church services and excommunicating John. After Innocent recruited King Philip II of France to amass an invasion force, however, John relented, agreeing to make England a fief of the papacy, and Langton took office.

Langton, meanwhile, had framed the concept that a king should not be above the law but be subject to it, like his barons. With John fighting in France, the archbishop called a secret meeting of the nobility and wealthy Londoners. He laid before them a charter formulated a hundred years earlier under Henry I but never enacted. The document chiefly concerned the matter of wills and inheritances but also required the king to recognize certain restraints in his treatment of his barons. Then it added this revolutionary clause: “And I enjoin on my barons to act in the same way toward the sons and daughters and wives of their dependents.”

For the first time, the common man was to have some rights conferred by law. All those present swore their support for this charter.

John returned from his campaign to a determined nobility, which early in 1215 presented him with their demand for the charter. He stalled, considered a civil war, realized he couldn’t win one, and agreed to meet with them. Thus, on June 15, 1215, in a field called Running-Mead (later Runnymede), on the Thames bank near Windsor, the united barons and their loathed liege lord thrashed out the seventy clauses of the Great Charter, and John signed it.

Three clauses recognize principles that would descend into the laws of the constitutional monarchies and republics. One forbids detaining a man without trial (habeas corpus). Another foresees trial by jury. The third forbids taxes without the approval of the “common council,” which would come to mean Parliament.

Still resisting, John took his case to Pope Innocent, who declared the charter void. With England a papal fief, a rebellion against John was a rebellion against the church, so Innocent suspended Langton from office. A civil war thereupon broke out in England; however, Innocent died in July 1216 and John three months later. The succeeding king and pope approved the Magna Carta, and Langton was restored to his office in 1218.

This is the end of the Magna Carta category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 139, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Magna Carta from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at