It’s one of those events in history that you know is important but really can’t put your finger on it. You’ve glanced at the articles which proclaim that it was the first agreement protecting the people of England, that it influenced the American Revolution and that our government are trying to dismantle it altogether but yet you get the feeling that those authors know as much as you do. This is where I come in. After reading this you will not only know what it is but also why it pales in significance to a much more important document from the time. And yes there will be references to Robin Hood.
First off, it means ‘Great Charter’ and was an agreement between king John (The cartoon lion from Disney’s take on Robin Hood) and his barons in 1215.
But to get the context we are going to leap back to… 1066! When William of Normandy seized power in England he confiscated 96% of the land from the English barons and gave it to his Norman lords. In order to begin a successful dynasty he needed lords, or barons, to collect taxes, maintain order and fight in his wars. So from the outset there was a necessary balance of power between the monarch and the nobility. The monarch granted land in return for duties while the barons performed these duties within reason.
Fast forward to 1191 when the swashbuckling King Richard the Lionheart went off on crusade to engage in battle with the honourable Saladin the Great. While away the crown of England was given to his younger brother John, an unfortunate soul who missed most if not all of the great family traits possessed by Richard. As his father tactically left him little or no property his nickname was ‘Lackland’.
Much to the despair of the kingdom Richard died in battle in 1199 and the crown officially passed to John. In his first military campaign in France he suffered terrible losses and surrendered huge tracts of English land. In order to pay for this costly defeat he had to raise taxes for his resentful barons to collect. To make matters worse his new moniker became ‘Soft Sword’ which wasn’t solely to do with his military acumen either…
His popularity fell further when he became entangled in disputes with the pope and the final straw for the barons came in 1214 when he lost another key battle on French soil. God appeared to be sending clear signals about the English king.
Enough was enough and a group of rebellious barons attempted to seize London and overthrow John. They were not met with total success so both groups convened at Runnymede to thrash out an agreement. This document became known as Magna Carta and explicitly limited the rights of the monarch. It promised that no free man could be unfairly imprisoned, no unfair taxes could be levied on free men, church rights were to be protected (Clerical positions were often held by the younger brothers of the nobility) and that King John’s actions would be closely supervised by a group of 25 barons.
This great document unquestionably outlined unprecedented political reform but two things must be noted:
1) John had no intention of abiding by it and as a result the First Barons War began within weeks. Following his death a year later the barons then sided with his son Henry who signed a diluted version of the charter.
2) The term ‘free men’ which relates to the nobility who made up less than 10% of the population. The barons were quick to preserve the status quo of the serfs who were often not permitted to leave their town of birth or even marry without their lords permission. Make no mistake, Magna Carta protected the interests of an elite group of Anglo-French landowners and not those of lower birth.
But before you go and spread the word of Magna Carta please allow me to pitch what I believe to be the real protector of the People – The Charter of the Forest from 1217. This document, which lasted for centuries, secured the rights of all people to use the royal forests. Because it was in forests that they found fuel, food, land for animals to graze, timber for building, medicine, clothing and much much more. This charter was unique because it guaranteed the rights of all people not just those who had the foresight to be born into a noble family. After all, in Robin Hood do he and his merry men protect the rights of the nobility to feudal tax breaks or do they fight for the right of the people of Sherwood Forest to use the ecosystem on their doorstep?