Today on June 15, 1215, King John of England reluctantly signs the Magna Carta, brokering peace with his rebellious barons.
The Magna Carta, known as the Great Charter, was a legal document between the King of England and his barons. In 1199, King John suddenly ascended to the throne after the death of his older brother, Richard the Lionheart. Unlike his chivalrous brother, John was an unpopular ruler, especially among the nobles. His reign was ultimately categorized as a failure after losing several territorial holdings in France. As an autocratic monarch, he was continually levying new taxes and confiscating church assets to fund his military expeditions. In 1214, John launched another campaign to reconquer Normandy which ended in complete disaster. As a result, the Archbishop of Canterbury summoned the country’s disgruntled barons to discuss their options.
They demanded the king sign a charter of liberties known as the Articles of the Barons but were swiftly rejected. The following year, the barons openly rebelled and amassed a far superior army. With limited resources and no allies left, the king was forced to submit. On June 15, 1215, he agreed to meet the barons at Runnymede on the Thames River. A few revisions were accommodated before signing the document with his royal seal. It became known as the Magna Carta and guaranteed that the king would respect their feudal rights and privileges. Furthermore, it required he uphold the freedoms of the church and protect national laws. The document’s 63 clauses heavily restricted the king’s absolute power.
However, the peace agreement was short-lived. Later that year, John refused to comply with his legal obligations and initiated a conflict known as the First Barons War. The barons allied with King Louis VIII of France and received military support from Scotland as well. John suddenly died the next and his nine-year-old son, Henry III, succeeded him. Henry eventually defeated the barons and reinstated the Magna Carta to ensure long-lasting peace. While the Magna Carta has been subject to great historical exaggeration, it is still seen as the cornerstone of democracy in England.