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The First of Century of Magna Carta: Three Crises
Ralph Turner (Florida State University, Department of History – Emeritus)
Paper given at Presbyterian College, South Carolina (2004)
Magna Carta is one of the key documents of the Anglo-American political tradition, yet it seemed a failure by the summer of 1215, repudiated by King John and the pope. When John died just over a year later, its fate was uncertain with a stalemated civil war dividing the country between baronial rebels and royalist forces.1 It was during the thirteenth century in the reigns of his son and grandson that the Great Charter took root as fundamental law. Reissued in the name of young Henry III in 1216, Magna Carta’s limits in the king’s power over his subjects remained in force during his minority; it was renewed in a definitive 1225 version along with a subsidiary document, the Charter of the Forest. The 1225 Charter stated that its liberties were conceded by Henry in exchange for a money grant from subjects, and it became customary for the king to seek consent to new taxes in exchange for confirmations of the two charters.
After 1225, Magna Carta was embedded in the minds of the English, and they took it up as their rallying cry against royal oppression. It became “a kind of fundamental law which governed the thinking of the Crown’s opponents whenever kingship provoked opposition”.2 Yet Henry III and his son Edward I did not easily learn its lesson, and it had to be taught them in three great crises in the course of the thirteenth century. The first crisis resulted from a brief experiment in ‘household government’, 1232 to 1234, when Henry III, governing through royal household servants, threatened the rule of law and baronial influence at court. Second came a major reform movement,1258 to 1265, set off by widespread doubts about Henry’s competence as ruler that kindled demands for sweeping reforms. Later Edward I’s arbitrary financial exactions for seemingly endless wars, 1294 to 1300, provoked the third crisis.