Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

Magna Charta

K ING RICHARD was succeeded by his brother John. Of all English kings he was the worst,—worse even than the Red King, being not only wicked, but weak. Yet from this weakness and wickedness there came, as we shall see, great good to the English people.

The chief nobles of England, seeing that no trust could be put in the King, and that his wrong-doing and oppression became worse from year to year, met together at St. Edmundsbury in the county of Suffolk, to devise means how they might best secure the liberties of the people. Having agreed together upon what things they should ask for this end, they also came to this resolve, that they would ask them at the Christmas next following, when the King should hold his court, to keep Christmas, as was the custom in those days.

This done, they went up, one by one, to the altar, and took an oath that if the King should refuse the things for which they asked, they would make war upon him, nor consent to peace till he should have granted them. At Christmas they could not get to speak with him, for he knew that they meant to ask what he was very loth to give; but twelve days afterwards they saw him and made their demands. After a while, it was agreed that the matter should be put off till Easter.

When Easter came the King was no more willing to yield than he had been before. He sent messengers to the nobles to ask them to write down their demands. But when he saw the paper, he cried out, "They might as well ask my crown of me! Shall I give them liberties that would make me a slave?" But when he heard that London had gone over to the party of the nobles, with whom, I should say, was Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, he thought it better to yield, though he was resolved in his heart to go back from his promises as soon as he should be able. Therefore, on the 19th day of June, in the year 1215 (being the seventeenth year of his reign), King John and the nobles met on an island in the Thames, called Runnymede, that is between Egham and Staines, and signed what is called the Great Charter. By this it was provided, among other things—

1. That the Church of England should be free.

2. That the King should not oppress the nobles, nor the nobles such as were under them.

3. That London and the other cities and towns of the kingdom should enjoy the freedom which they had before possessed.

4. That causes of law should be tried in a fixed place.

5. That weights and measures should be the same everywhere.

6. That the King should not sell, or refuse, or postpone the doing of justice.

7. That every free man should be safe both for his person and his property from all damages, except such as might be done by the lawful judgment of his equals, or by the law of the land.

For all that remained of his life the King tried to undo what had been done by the signing of the Charter. He declared war against the nobles; he hired soldiers from abroad to fight for him, and he obtained from the Pope a declaration that the Charter was null and void.

On the other hand, the nobles sent to the oldest son of the King of France, if he would come over and help them. So there was civil war in the country—Englishmen fighting against Englishmen.

But about twenty months after the signing of the Charter the King died. He was marching from Lincoln to King's Lynn, which is on the south side of the Wash, and in crossing the Wash he lost his baggage with all his treasure. Not many days after—on October the 19th—he died, but whether from trouble of mind, or from poison, or from some natural disease, is not known for certain.

As for the Charter, the Kings of England have often tried to set it aside, but have never succeeded in so doing. One after another they have been forced to confirm it, and it is the foundation of English liberty.

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