Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

The Story of John Lackland


RICHARD had left no children, and now John, youngest son of Henry II, became king, though no one really wished to have him for a ruler. A brother older than John had left a boy, named Arthur, for King Arthur of the Round Table, but he was only twelve years old, and the chief men of England were afraid that there would be war if a child was on the throne. John was jealous of Arthur, and in three or four years the boy disappeared so suddenly that people felt sure that John had murdered him.

It had long been the custom for the King of France to be a sort of overlord of the French lands of the Duke of Normandy, though sometimes the duke was the more powerful of the two men. Philip now sent a formal summons to John, as Duke of Normandy and therefore vassal of the French king, to appear before the French court to answer for the murder of Arthur; and as he did not come, Philip punished him by taking possession of more than half of the English king's lands in France. It is perhaps because of this that John received his nickname of "Lackland."

John's next trouble was with the Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury had died, and it was a question whether the man that the king chose or the man that the Pope chose should have the position. The Pope's choice was Stephen Langton, an upright, learned man of sound judgment and utter fearlessness of spirit. John refused to receive him The Pope placed the kingdom under an interdict. The churches were draped with black, and their doors were closed. The dead could not be buried in consecrated ground, and no marriage could be solemnized within the walls of the church. This was the state of England for four years. Then the Pope excommunicated the king, and commissioned Philip to seize the English crown. At this, John yielded, and was ready to make any promise and pay any amount, if only he might keep his position.

Philip could have made very little trouble for John if the English king had not all this time been treating his subjects so badly that some of them began to think they would rather have Philip for a ruler, and no one knew whether they would stand by their king or not. The charters that had been given to London and to other cities John had refused to respect, and he had forced many of the barons to give him large sums of money. The Jews especially had suffered in his determination to get their wealth. There is a record that one of them had borne agonizing torture without yielding to the unjust demands of the king, and finally John ordered one of his victim's teeth to be knocked out every day until he should give up his gold. The poor man submitted, after losing a tooth every morning for seven days. John had been as rapacious with the poor as with the rich, for he would even take away a man's tools by which he earned his bread, if the man could not pay the sum demanded. Men had been put into prison and refused a trial. Indeed, the only sure way to win a case was, not to have a just cause, but to make the king a present of money, horses, a suit of clothes, or even poultry or fish; for this king, who would extort so great sums from the rich, did not scorn the smallest trifles, if a man could be forced to give nothing more. In punishing any misdeed, he would demand as large a sum as could be forced from the man accused. He taxed people, not by any regular law, but for as much as he could get.

When Archbishop Langton came to England, John went to him to ask for absolution, or the pardon of the Church. The archbishop had learned just how John's subjects were suffering from his cruel treatment, and he boldly refused pardon until the king should promise to obey the laws of his ancestors and treat his people justly.

John promised without a moment's hesitation, but he soon showed that he had not the slightest idea of keeping his word. The fearless archbishop called together the clergy, barons, and other prominent men to meet in a church in London. When the other business of the meeting was ended, Langton told some of the barons that he had found the charter that Henry I had given to his people a century before.

The barons seemed to have forgotten all about this charter, and they were delighted to find that they had so good a weapon. "When King John sees this," said they, "he will never dare to refuse what his great-grandfather promised so long ago." Then the charter was read aloud, and there before the altar the barons and the archbishop promised one another that they would stand by their rights. These barons were much more patient than those of the days of William the Conqueror, for they agreed to wait one year to see if the king would not improve.

The year passed, and then they again met in a church and took a solemn oath that if the king refused them justice they would make war upon him. Even after this they waited until Christmas. Then they went to John and asked him to repeat before the nation the promises that he had made to Langton when he received absolution. John was badly frightened, but he contrived to put them off till Easter. He thought that there would be some way out of the trouble by that time; but at Easter he was in an even more hopeless condition than before, for now there was a great army all ready to fight against his tyranny.

What could he do? A king who would treat his subjects so unjustly would not hesitate to deceive them; and when John found that he must yield, he sent a polite message to the barons, saying that he was willing to meet them wherever they wished and to promise them whatever they desired.

The barons requested him to come to Runnymede, a meadow on the Thames near Windsor, and there, June 15, 1215, he signed his name and affixed his seal to a piece of parchment that is now, brown, shriveled, and torn, in the British Museum. This is the famous Magna Carta, or Great Charter, and just as the charters of towns secured for them many rights, so this secured for the whole English nation the right that their ruler should treat them justly.

The people were delighted, for they hoped that John would keep his word, and that England would now be happy and peaceful; but the king went into a perfect fury of rage. He threw the furniture about, and rolled over the floor like a madman, gnashing his teeth and biting at sticks and straws.

What were these promises which John had to sign and which, he said, made him "no longer a king but a slave"? One was that he would not delay justice or take bribes; another, that all fines for misdeeds should be fixed by law; another, that he would impose no taxes without the consent of his council; another, that he would give up his custom of seizing a large share of the property that any noble left when he died, for before this, John had been in the habit of taking as much as he chose, and if there were young children, he would take nearly all the income of the estate till the children were grown up. The most important pledge was that no free man should be imprisoned or punished in any way except by the lawful judgment of his equals. The barons on their part promised that they would treat their vassals just as they had made the king agree to treat them.

The barons feared that John would not keep his promises, so they had drawn up another paper giving them the right to take his castles and lands and annoy him by every means in their power if he broke his word. And John had to sign this too! Twenty-five overlords were specially appointed to keep watch of him. This charter was sent throughout the kingdom and was read aloud in all the churches.

John was in a fury and went off to the Isle of Wight to think what he could do to revenge himself on the barons. No one in England would help him, so he sent to the Continent and hired foreign soldiers to come over and fight for him. At first this plan seemed to be successful, for by their aid he took several strong castles from the barons; but it was worse for him in the end, for these soldiers were so cruel and wicked that the whole English nation hated John more than ever for bringing such people into the land.

Again the barons met, and this time they were in such despair that they could think of nothing else to do but to invite the dauphin, eldest son of King Philip of France, to be their ruler. He had married John's niece, so they tried their utmost to feel that he would really be an English king. The dauphin was delighted to come, but he and his men behaved worse than the other foreign soldiers. They took possession of goods and castles, and even began to think of banishing the barons who had invited them to come.

Between John and the Frenchmen the barons hardly knew what to do, but just then John suddenly died. It is said that when lie was crossing a dangerous place on the seashore, a high tide swept away quantities of the treasure that he was carrying with him, and that even his crown went under the waves. John had not been in the least penitent for the wrong that he had done his people, but he was so sorry to lose his treasure that he fell into a fever and died.

Wicked man as John was, it was an excellent thing for England that he had been its king, for if a man only half as bad had stood in his place, the barons would not have been aroused to make him sign the Great Charter. Several kings since the days of John have tried to deal unjustly with the nation, but in the end the English people have either driven them from the throne, or made them yield and keep the promises of the Charter.

by Eva March Tappan

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