God’s Teeth: The Magna Carta in 1215 (Throwback Thursday)

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magnacarta1By Ken Fox

(Part 1 of a series)

“John … when he heard of the latter chapter, the forty-ninth … is described as having wrought himself into a furious passion and swearing by ‘God’s teeth’ his favourite oath, that we would never agree to such demands on the part of any of them, that he would never enslave himself to any of his barons upon any consideration.”

In 1066 England was won at the point of a sword, that of William the Conqueror of Normandy, who led his army of knights by example and slew many enemy warriors with his own blade. His domestic rule was equally brutal, favouring the cutting off of both hands, or a limb, or both eyes, as punishments for routine offences.

William’s successors, wielding power inherited rather than acquired by force, were also brutal, but ruled more through administrative means. It was a time of population growth and economic expansion, and the feudal bureaucracy grew to take full advantage of the country’s wealth, while the state of law lagged behind. The development of laws and charters, rather than representing the Crown’s authority over the people, would be an expression of the growing liberty of the nobility from the arbitrary power of kings.

It was all about land. There was no big money capital or banks. Land was power, and to a ruler, land was income. The kings granted parcels of lands to their barons in exchange for loyalty, taxes and military service. Strong kings conquered new lands, or at least held onto their inherited ones. Weak kings lost territory to rivals and made up for lost revenue by collecting more from their subjects in the forms of myriad fees and taxes, thereby risking revolt.

John was a weak king. In 1205, the fifth year of his reign, he lost Normandy and the entire continental portion of the Angevin empire, to the French. The rest of his life would be a doomed attempt to recover his lands and his dignity.

How does a medieval king build an army to conquer a foreign territory? Can he simply enlist the able-bodied men of this realm to fight for him? In the early thirteenth century, the king’s ability to summon a domestic military was surprisingly limited. The nobility, whose traditional role was defending their country, could choose to pay taxes in lieu of military service, in an arrangement called scuttage. In a time of prosperity it is little wonder that they took advantage of this option to serve the foreign military conquests of their disgraced king.

So King John’s army was to consist, in large part, of hired mercenaries. As in every other aspect of his war fundraising, he exploited scuttage well beyond the bounds of custom. As Kim and Melanie tell us, the Magna Carta is remembered today for its early invocation of modern ideas such as due process, women’s rights, and access to justice. But at the time a more pressing issue was the limitations it placed on collection of scuttage and other fees.

By 1213, the English barons were in open revolt, and began to support French King Philip to take the English throne by force. At this point, John was at war with France, Scotland, Wales, his own barons, and the Pope, who had excommunicated him in 1209 over a disagreement as to the choice of Archbishop of England.

John needed an ally, and it was this last enemy, the Catholic Church, who he turned to. In May of 1213, he resigned his throne to the Pope, who restored religious services to England, ordered King Philip to desist from invading England, and asked the English barons to cease their revolt. John would remain “King” of England, but with a new landlord overseeing his rule.

King Philip, in deference to the pope, cancelled his invasion plans, but the barons continued to press, not respecting the combined authority of the Pope and King John, who practiced all manners of treachery in evading their demands for liberties. On Easter 1215 they staged an armed insurrection, presenting their demands in the form of 49 articles, which would form the basis of the Magna Carta, including an enforcement scheme (“teeth”) that endowed broad policing powers to 25 appointed barons. It is at this point that John made his remark, quoted above, about “God’s teeth” – but he reluctantly assented to the articles. The charter was won by sword, and peace was restored.

But not for long. The king, never intending to surrender so much to his subjects permanently, wrote to the Pope, requesting a repeal of the charter, which the Pope granted by way of Papal Bull dated August 24, 1215. The teeth of God sided with the king.

But as Kim notes, the repeal of the charter did not pacify the barons, who escalated the civil war. John continued to battle his barons until October 1216, when he died suddenly of dysentery.

This would have been a good time for the English barons to align with Louis, the new King of France, who had an eye on the English throne, in exchange for some granting of liberties. But instead, they consented to the crowning of John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III, coupled with the rule of William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, who had been loyal to John throughout the dispute. So here the Magna Carta dies – or does it?

Works Consulted:

Barrington, Boyd C. The Magna Charta and other Great Charters of England. (Littleton, CO: Rothman & Co., 1993)

Bates, David. William the Conqueror. (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2004)

Breay, Claire. Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths. (London: The British Library, 2002)

Holt, J.C. Magna Carta. 2d ed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Howard, A.E. Dick. The Magna Carta: Text and Commentary. Carlottesville: (University Press of Virginia, 1964)

Swindler, William F. Magna Carta: Legend and Legacy. (Indianapolis: Bobs-Merril Co., 1965)


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