Bookreview: Magna Carta and the England of King John

The creation and kind of acceptance of Magna Carta by King John and his rebellious barons, was commemorated on the fifteenth of June. Always interested in history, I decided to learn a bit more about this charter. For whatever is taught about Magna Carta, is often incomplete. It is a truth, but not the total truth and certainly not nothing but the truth.

A few years ago, I visited one of the places where a copy is kept. Hereford Cathedral and town are well worth a visit, even if you’re totally not into Magna Carta. I can also strongly recommend a visit to one of the charter towns: Canterbury and its cathedral. In fact: why not plan a visit to all the places which have a link with the Magna Carta this summer? These not only include Runnymede and London, but also Lincoln, St Albans and a great many more. (Magna Carta locations.)

But to return to the Magna Carta itself. It’s not altogether what most people think. The story about unpopular King John and the 25 barons is kind of true. But the charter was drafted – undoubtedly several times, accepted – kind of, annulled, reissued, rewritten. The ten essays in this slim book will teach you even more of the history of Magna Carta’s creation and impact.

As Ralph V. Turner states in the first essay “England in 1215: An Authoritarian Angevin Dynasty Facing Multiple Threats”, the problems started way before John Lackland became King of England. John certainly did not endear himself, as becomes clear in John Gillingham’s essay “The Anonymous of Behtune, King John and Magna Carta”. This not only describes an anonymous account of John’s reign. It contains some eyewitness paragraphs. I’ve never come across – and never hope to meet – a person who can become so angry, he tears apart a cushion and starts eating the straw used to stuff it.

That’s not all. There is the disappearance – still a mystery – of the heir to the throne called Arthur of Brittanny. No, this is not the legendary Arthur but a real person. His disappearance seems an earlier version of the Princes in the Tower.

Then there is the gruesome story of what happened to the wife and son of one of the barons, William de Briouze or de Braose. And these are stories about what happened to a few of the upper class, powerful, rich people around King John. Small wonder that David Crouch writes about “Baronial Paranoia in King John’s Reign”.

It is interesting to read about the managerial revolution in the English church. Especially, as the then Archbishop of Canterbury helped draft the Magna Carta. He certainly put his stamp on it.

Even more interesting is the fact that the charter had predecessors in laws, introduced or at least kind of honoured by King Henry I – and undoubtedly penned down by other clerics. It is also very interesting to read about the laws and law system in “The Forest Eyre in the Reign of King John”.

What should not be forgotten is, that it’s a charter between a limited group of upper class nobles with very much power and influence and their King. Society did not only consisted of barons – who were thugs – and a not-that-nice King. There were powerful archbishops, clerics and other churchmen. For these groups the charter meant something.

It probably meant far less to other groups which made up medieval society, like poor farmers, villeins and serfs. For with legends like Robin Hood and “good” King Richard the Lionheart, it is sometimes forgotten that this was a feudal society. Life was not pleasant for the majority of the country.

For those interested in law, there are several essays which will cater to your interest. Among these are “Magna Carta … and English Common Law” by John Hudson. Enlightening is also Barbara Hanawalt’s “Justice without Judgement”.

“What did Magna Carta mean to widows” by Janet S. Loengard is a must-read not only for those interested in law, but also history, social history and even English literature. It deals not only with a specific group within society. It gives insight into the position of women and widows before 1215 and after. It was interesting to read, that widows were actually forced to pay to prevent being married off.

In short: this collection of essays, edited by Janet S. Loengard is an interesting read for those who are already more familiar with the history, meaning, importance and impact of Magna Carta than the average reader. It is a very interesting collection of essays on the specific period, but as it has been available since 2010 there may already be more information on a few of the topics it deals with.

“Magna Carta and the England of King John”, ed. Janet S. Loengard, 190 pp, 2010

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