On this day 800 years ago, King John was compelled to sign the Magna Charta, formally accepting a limit to his prerogative to ravage everything in England. But the ink on his signature was barely dry before he brought in foreign forces and tried to wipe out the barons who had compelled him to sign the Charta.
The English almost lost their newly-recognized rights within months of the signing because they were not sufficiently suspicious of the King.
As David Hume noted in his magisterial History of England,
The ravenous and barbarous mercenaries, incited by a cruel and enraged prince, were let loose against the estates, tenants, manors, houses, parks of the barons, and spread devastation over the face of the kingdom.
Nothing was to be seen but the flames of villages and castles reduced to ashes, the consternation and misery of the inhabitants, tortures exercised by the soldiery to make them reveal their concealed treasures.
Few people recall that Pope Innocent speedily sought to annul the charter and formally absolved King John of any obligation to obey Magna Charta. English liberties received a boost from the death of King John less than a year after Runnymede.
The real lesson of Magna Charta is that solemn pledges do not make tyrants trustworthy. Similarly, American presidents are required to pledge upon taking office that “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully… preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
At this point, that oath does little more than spur cheers from high school civics teachers. It has been more than 40 years since any president paid a serious price for trampling the law — and presidents have a prerogative to trample constitutional rights as long as they periodically proclaim their devotion to democracy.
In the final realm, Magna Charta was simply a political promise — and it would only be honored insofar as private courage, resolution, and weaponry compelled sovereigns to limit their abuses.
For an excellent analysis of why the heritage of Magna Charta did not prove a panacea in this nation, see Anthony Gregory’s The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
Here’s David Hume’s account of what happened after Magna Charta was signed, copied from the excellent Liberty Fund online version of Hume’s history:
John seemed to submit passively to all these regulations, however injurious to majesty: He sent writs to all the sheriffs, ordering them to constrain every one to swear obedience to the twenty-five barons. He dismissed all his foreign forces: He pretended, that his government was thenceforth to run in a new tenor, and be more indulgent to the liberty and independance of his people.
But he only dissembled, till he should find a favourable opportunity for annulling all his concessions. The injuries and indignities, which he had formerly suffered from the pope and the king of France, as they came from equals or superiors, seemed to make but small impression on him: But the sense of this perpetual and total subjection under his own rebellious vassals, sunk deep in his mind, and he was determined, at all hazards, to throw off so ignominious a slavery.
He grew sullen, silent, and reserved: He shunned the society of his courtiers and nobles: He retired into the Isle of Wight, as if desirous of hiding his shame and confusion; but in this retreat he meditated the most fatal vengeance against all his enemies.
He secretly sent abroad his emissaries to inlist foreign soldiers, and to invite the rapacious Brabançons into his service, by the prospect of sharing the spoils of England, and reaping the forfeitures of so many opulent barons, who had incurred the guilt of rebellion, by rising in arms against him. And he dispatched a messenger to Rome, in order to lay before the pope the Great Charter, which he had been compelled to sign, and to complain, before that tribunal, of the violence, which had been imposed upon him.
Innocent, considering himself as feudal lord of the kingdom, was incensed at the temerity of the barons, who, though they pretended to appeal to his authority, had dared, without waiting for his consent, to impose such terms on a prince, who, by resigning to the Roman pontiff his crown and independance, had placed himself immediately under the papal protection.
He issued, therefore, a bull, in which, from the plenitude of his apostolic power, and from the authority, which God had committed to him, to build and destroy kingdoms, to plant and overthrow, he annulled and abrogated the whole charter, as unjust in itself, as obtained by compulsion, and as derogatory to the dignity of the apostolic see.
He prohibited the barons from exacting the observance of it: He even prohibited the king himself from paying any regard to it: He absolved him and his subjects from all oaths, which they had been constrained to take to that purpose: And he pronounced a general sentence of excommunication against every one, who should persevere in maintaining such treasonable and iniquitous pretensions.
The king, as his foreign forces arrived along with this bull, now ventured to take off the mask; and, under sanction of the pope’s decree, recalled all the liberties which he had granted to his subjects, and which he had solemnly sworn to observe. But the spiritual weapon was found upon trial to carry less force with it, than he had reason from his own experience to apprehend.
The primate refused to obey the pope in publishing the sentence of excommunication against the barons; and though he was cited to Rome, that he might attend a general council, there assembled, and was suspended, on account of his disobedience to the pope, and his secret correspondence with the king’s enemies.
Though a new and particular sentence of excommunication was pronounced by name against the principal barons; John still found, that his nobility and people, and even his clergy, adhered to the defence of their liberties, and to their combination against him: The sword of his foreign mercenaries was all he had to trust to for restoring his authority.
The barons, after obtaining the Great Charter, seem to have been lulled into a fatal security, and to have taken no rational measures, in case of the introduction of a foreign force, for reassembling their armies. The king was from the first master of the field; and immediately laid siege to the castle of Rochester, which was obstinately defended by William de Albiney, at the head of a hundred and forty knights with their retainers, but was at last reduced by famine.
… The ravenous and barbarous mercenaries, incited by a cruel and enraged prince, were let loose against the estates, tenants, manors, houses, parks of the barons, and spread devastation over the face of the kingdom. Nothing was to be seen but the flames of villages and castles reduced to ashes, the consternation and misery of the inhabitants, tortures exercised by the soldiery to make them reveal their concealed treasures, and reprizals no less barbarous, committed by the barons and their partizans on the royal demesnes, and on the estates of such as still adhered to the crown.
Read the rest of Hume’s account here.