John Lackland—The Story of the Great Charter
T HE French barons soon grew weary of John and his misrule, and they all leagued against him. They fought and conquered him, and he had to fly from Normandy which, with all his other French possessions, was lost to him forever.
But although he was no longer Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, Lord of Touraine and Maine, John was still King of England, and to England he returned to rob and oppress the people.
The wise man, called Hubert Walter, who had ruled England during the last years of Richard Cœur de Lion, now died. He had been Archbishop of Canterbury, and John was very glad when he died, as he was one of the few men who kept him from doing just as he liked.
John chose a friend of his own as the next archbishop, but the monks of Canterbury chose some one else. Both these men went to the Pope to ask him which of them ought to be the archbishop. Henry II., you remember, had quarrelled with Thomas à Becket over this very point, because, he said, he had the right to choose the English bishops, and the Pope had nothing to do with it.
The Pope said that neither of these men should be archbishop, and he chose another man altogether, called Stephen Langdon.
Stephen Langdon was a very good man. In fact no better archbishop could have been chosen. But John was furiously angry when he heard that his friend was not to be allowed to be archbishop, and he banished Stephen Langdon from the country.
Then the Pope was very angry with John and told him that, if he did not allow Stephen to come back at once, he would lay England under an Interdict.
Interdict comes from a Latin word which means "to forbid." The Pope meant that he would forbid any religious service of any kind to be held in England.
John did not care. He meant to have his own way. So did the Pope. John would not give in and the churches were closed. No bells were rung, no services were held. People could not be married, little babies could not be christened, dead people could not be buried. Cobwebs and dust filled the churches, weeds choked the graveyards.
It was a sad and gloomy land.
Still John did not care. Then the Pope excommunicated him. Excommunicate is another Latin word and means that John was put out of union or companionship, not only with the Church, but with every human being.
The Pope told the people that John was no longer king and that they need not now obey him. They were forbidden to eat or drink with him or to serve him. Whatever he did was wrong. In fact he had lost all rights as a man and as a Christian. He might be looked upon as a wild animal. Any one who chose might kill him.
Still John did not care. He laughed at the Pope.
Then the Pope told the King of France that he would be doing a good and Christian act if he conquered John and took possession of England.
The French king was only too pleased to have a good excuse for invading England, and he began at once to prepare to fight.
Then suddenly John grew frightened and gave way. He had found out that not only the Pope and the French were against him, but the Scotch, the Irish, the Welsh, and even the English were all ready to fight. He was alone in the world, hated and despised by all. So powerful was the Pope in those days.
From being insolent and scornful, John now became meanly humble and did a shameful thing. The Pope sent a messenger to England, and John, kneeling before this messenger, took the crown from his head and gave it to him.
The Pope's messenger kept the crown for five days and then he gave it back to John. But he did not give it to him as the free King of England. He gave it to him telling him that henceforth he could wear it only as the servant of the Pope, and that he must promise always to do as the Pope commanded.
The English people felt sad and ashamed that their King should be under the Pope like this, but John did not care, for the Pope was now his friend. And John knew that the Pope could be as powerful a friend as he had been an enemy.
One good thing at least followed. The Interdict was taken from the land. Once more church bells rang, hymns were sung, and the silent gloom passed away.
Another good man who had helped to protect the people from John now died. When John heard of it he was very glad. "At last I am really King of England," he cried, for he thought that there was no one else in all the land to hinder him from being as bad and cruel as he wished.
But he was mistaken. Stephen Langdon, the man whom the Pope had made Archbishop of Canterbury, turned out to be the people of England's best friend.
You remember that King Henry I. had granted a Charter of Liberties to the people. That charter had been broken, set aside and forgotten. Stephen Langdon and the barons now drew up another charter which they determined to make John grant to them. This charter was much the same as that of Henry, only it gave still greater liberty to the people. It is called the Magna Charta or Great Charter. Magna means "great."
The charter is very long and some of it you would find difficult to understand, but I will tell you a few of the things in it, for the Magna Charta is the foundation of all our laws and liberty.
"No free man," it says, "or merchant or peasant shall be punished a great deal for a very little fault. However bad they may have been we will not take their tools or other things by which they earn their living, away from them."
"No free man shall be seized, or put in prison, or have his goods or lands taken from him, or be outlawed or exiled, or in any way brought to ruin, unless he has been properly judged and condemned by the law of the land."
"To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay right or justice."
These things seem to us now quite natural and right, so you can imagine what evil times these were when the King was unwilling to grant such liberty to his people.
But King John was very unwilling to grant it. When he first read this charter he was furiously angry. "Why do they not ask for my kingdom at once?" he cried. "I will never, never grant anything that will make me a slave of the people."
But the Church and the barons and the people were all against John. Agree he must. Yet he kept delaying, from Christmas till Easter, from Easter till midsummer. Friend after friend deserted him, till at last he found that the whole country had risen against him like one huge army, and he had only seven knights left who were still true to him.
The angry barons would no longer be put off. They forced the King to meet them at a little place on the Thames called Runnymede. The barons and their army camped on one side of the river, the King and his friends on the other. On a little island between, they met and talked, and there, on 15th June 1215 A.D., the Great Charter was sealed with the king's great seal.
The King was sullen and angry. At the last he would have refused to set his hand to the seal, but Stephen Langdon stood beside him and the stern barons around. Then he found that he had to bend his will to that of the people.
John not only sealed the charter, but he agreed that twenty-four barons should be appointed to see that he kept the promises which it contained. He agreed only because he was compelled, because the barons stood there in bright armour with sharp swords and fierce looks, because he knew he had no friend to stand by him and help him to resist.
When the meeting was over, and John went back to his palace, his anger was terrible. He threw himself on the floor foaming with passion. "They have given me four-and-twenty over-lords," he screamed. "I am no king with four-and-twenty over-lords." He cursed the barons and the people with terrible curses. He tore and bit the rushes with which the floor was covered. He gnashed his teeth, growling and snarling like a wild animal mad with rage.
Yet this charter, against which John fought so fiercely, was nothing new; the laws and promises it contained were the laws and promises of Edward the Confessor, of Alfred the Great. But they were also the laws and promises which the foreign kings of England had broken and trampled on ever since William the Conqueror had won the battle of Hastings.
Many copies of the great charter were made, and these copies were sent to cathedrals and other safe places to be taken care of. This was done so that the people throughout all the land should know of their liberties, and if one copy were lost or destroyed, there should still be others. It is nearly seven hundred years since Magna Charta was sealed, yet one copy still remains. It is yellow and stained, but we treasure it greatly for the memory of what it was and is to us. It is kept safely in London, in the British Museum. Some day you will go there and look at it.
John sealed the Magna Charta because he had no choice, but he never meant to keep the promises it contained. And he did not keep them. He sent to France for soldiers, and when they came he made war on his own people. He asked his friend the Pope for help, and the Pope helped him by excommunicating all the barons, by laying London under Interdict, and by telling him that he need not keep his promises.
But the people of England said that this was a matter with which the Pope had nothing to do, and so they paid no attention to him. The church bells rang; there was preaching, praying, and singing in the churches, and people were married, and buried, and christened as usual. The Pope was very angry, but he could do nothing.
Then, as John still went on his wicked way, the people sent to France and asked Louis, the son of the King of France, to come to fight against John, promising to help him and to make him King of England.
Louis came, but there was little need for him to fight, as very shortly John died. While crossing the Wash to meet Louis, he, his army and all his treasure were overtaken by the tide. John himself was nearly drowned, and his crown, his jewels and the baggage of the army were lost.
A few days later John died. Some say that he died of anger and grief, others that he was poisoned, others that his death was caused by eating a great many raw peaches and by drinking a quantity of new cider too greedily.
No king of England has ever been so bad as John. He was a bad son, a bad brother, a bad king, and a bad man. Yet out of his wicked reign great good came to the English nation.
The loss of Normandy, which was caused by John's cruelty, proved to be a blessing to England. Norman lords no longer came to England expecting to fill the best places in the land. French was spoken less and less, until only a few French words remained, which we still use, and which now form part of the English language. The hatred between Norman and English died out, because the differences disappeared, and the Norman barons became English barons.
In the reign of Stephen the barons, you remember, were fierce and wicked, and oppressed the people in terrible ways. In the reign of John, the barons had become the champions of the people, and took up arms for them against a wicked king.
When the barons forced John to grant the Magna Charta, they fought, not for themselves, as barons and Normans, but for the whole English people. For the first time since the Conquest the people of England acted as one people. The Norman had disappeared. England was England again. She had conquered the Conqueror.