L ess than two hundred years after the reign of William the Conqueror one of his descendants, King John, sat upon the throne of England. He was an exceedingly bad ruler. He stole, he told lies, and he put innocent people in prison. If he wanted money, he simply demanded it of any persons who had it, and if they refused to give it, he did not hesitate to torture them till they yielded. Men who had committed crime and deserved to be punished he would set free if they could raise money enough to make him a present. If two men disagreed and brought their difficulty before him for trial, he would decide in favor of the one who had made him the larger gift. Sometimes, for some very small offence, he would demand money of a poor man who had only a horse and cart with which to earn his living; and if the man had no friends to bribe the king, his horse and cart were sold to help fill the royal treasury. King John was even believed to have murdered a nephew, the young Prince Arthur, who had claim to the throne.
John ruled not only England, but also the duchy of Normandy, which had descended to him from William the Conqueror. As Normandy was a fief of France, Philip, King of France, called upon his vassal John to account for the death of the prince. John refused to appear. Then Philip took away nearly all his French possessions. That loss made his income much smaller. Moreover, the cost of carrying on the government had increased. There was, then, some reason for his constant need of money, even though there was so little excuse for his manner of obtaining it.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, there was a dispute about who should succeed him. The Pope was appealed to, and he bade the monks of Canterbury name a good, upright man named Stephen Langton to take his place. This choice did not please the king, therefore he seized the monastery and its revenues and banished the monks. For six years John resisted the Pope and refused to allow Langton to become archbishop. Finally he became afraid that he was going to die, and then he yielded most meekly. He even went to Langton to beg for absolution, or the pardon of the church. "When you promise to obey the laws of the land and to treat your people justly, I will absolve you," replied the archbishop.
Archbishop Langton Reading the Law of the Land to the Barons
John was always ready to make a promise, but he never kept it unless it was convenient. He promised what the archbishop asked; but, as might have been expected, he soon broke his word.
Now, next to the king, the barons were the most powerful men of the kingdom; but even they did not know what to do. Fortunately, the archbishop knew. He called the barons together, and read them what had been the law of the land since a short time after the death of William the Conqueror. Then the barons understood what their rights were, and they took a solemn oath to defend them. "But we will wait for one year," they said. "The king may do better." They waited a year; then they waited till Christmas. The king had not improved, and the barons went to him and asked him to repeat the promises that he had made to the archbishop. John was insolent at first, but when he saw that the barons were in earnest, he became very meek, and said that what they asked was important, to be sure, but also difficult, and he should need a little time before making the agreement. By Easter he should be able to satisfy them. The barons did not believe him, and so, when Easter came, they brought to the appointed place a large body of armed followers. After a while John sent to ask what it was that the barons insisted upon having. Then bold, dignified Stephen Langton read aloud to him from a parchment such articles as these: "A free man shall not be fined for a small offence, except in proportion to the gravity of the offence." "No free man shall be imprisoned or banished except by the lawful judgment of his equals, or by the law of the land."
John grew more and more angry as these were read; and when the archbishop went on to read other articles declaring that the king must not take bribes, or impose taxes without the consent of his council, or body of advisers, and finally one giving the barons the right to elect twenty-five of their number to keep watch over him and seize his castles if he did not keep his promise, then he went into a furious passion. "I will never grant liberties that would make me a slave," he declared.
Nevertheless, he had to yield. There was a famous green meadow with low hills on one side and the River Thames on the other. Its name of Runnymede, or Meadow of Council, was given it long before William the Conqueror landed in England, because there the Saxons used to hold their councils. To this meadow the barons and their army marched from London. Then out of a strong fortress that rose near at hand, and across the drawbridge that swung over the moat, rode an angry and sulky ruler of England. He promised that his seal should be fixed to the parchment, and then he went back to his palace. He was well-nigh mad with rage; but the barons cared little for this, and they caused many copies of this parchment to be made and sent over the land to be read aloud in the churches.
This parchment was the famous Magna Charta, or Great Charter, sealed in 1215. The barons were then the most powerful men of the kingdom, and they saw to it that as long as he lived the king kept his word. About fifty years later, not only the barons but representatives of the towns were admitted to the council. This was the beginning of the English Parliament; and now, if a king ruled unjustly, he must account, not only to the barons, but to the whole people. From that day to this, no monarch has been able to remain on the throne of England who has not kept the promises that King John was obliged to make that June day at Runnymede.