Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society
At school the Magna Carta was just a date, but, connect it to the previous 100 years of: habitual warring between the Barons; the increasing power of the centralising English Kings; the disputes with the Scottish Kings, Chiefs and the various factions in France, (where kings and Barons held lands); and the Pope having too much influence; the peasants becoming restless, there was a great need to come to terms. But Kings needed the goodwill of the Barons.
Unlike his successful and popular brother Richard the Lionheart, King John did not receive such allegiance.
Warring doesn’t come cheap, and the people who paid for it were the 95 per cent of the population working for the Barons and Freemen.
Apart from the regional disputes Kings needed the Barons to raise men and arms by designated quota. On average men were generally away fighting for some 12 weeks of any year, and needed to go home. There were no generally accepted rules for dispensing justice. Decisions on community life needed to be settled.
The Northern and Border Barons were famous for being rebellious and largely instrumental in demanding the Magna Carta. Most owned land and intermarried on both sides of the disputed Scottish Border and received support from the Scots kings.
Obviously, they expected to be left alone to rule in their own lands. Charters had been written and agreed over the years, but after losing an expensive war in France the final trigger was the demand by King John to raise men and arms for a Crusade. This would have left The Pope in charge of England. A friend and beneficiary of King John, Robert fitz Roger of Warkworth was one of 13 North East Barons. Some even decided to kill the King.
After several months of suggestions for the charter by King and Barons, King John arranged to meet them at Runnymede (Runny bog).
The Barons arrived with their armies where, after four days of discussion, the list of 63 demands were Sealed, but not signed by King John. They included:
Villagers would not be forced to build bridges; New widows to be allowed to stay more than 40 days in their house; The King may not take carts and waggons; No Free Man (five per cent of population) to be arbitrarily taken and deprived of liberty; All cities to have the same grants as London; The Church in England to be free of the Pope; Taxes/money levied to pay for mercenaries for war.
Over the next several years amendments were made, but it eventually formed a universally recognised ‘Declaration of Human Rights’ and a basis for a more ordered Society. The settlers in America used it to fight for their independence – with the help of the French. The French followed with their own revolution.
Michael Thompson’s assessment of medieval King John was that he was ahead of his time but very unlucky, by overdoing everything.
He upset people, was excommunicated by the Pope, was tactless with the Barons, but, was efficient at centralising and an innovative genius. He saw the Magna Carta as a way to begin to limit the powers of the Barons over the peasants. It gave him more direct contact with the people. A precursor of the medieval kings.
Next talk at Rothbury: Waterloo – A close run thing. Captain Cavalie Merser’s (Royal Artilliary) account of his role in the defeat of Napoleon, on October 16, at the Jubilee Hall, from 7.30pm to 9pm. All are welcome, non members £2.