King John and the Magna Carta (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: King John and the Magna Carta

Q1: What evidence is there in the Magna Carta that the barons were unhappy with the way the law operated under King John?

A1: The barons were upset with the way King John made decisions without consulting them. As Winston Churchill (source 2) pointed out: "The leaders of the barons in 1215 groped in the dim light towards a fundamental principle. Government must henceforward mean something more than the arbitrary rule of any man, and custom and the law must stand even above the King".

Aspects of the Magna Carta that protected the rights of the barons included: (II) If any of our earls, or barons... shall have died, and at the time of his death his heir shall be of full age... he shall have his inheritance. (XII) No scutage or aid (tax) shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom. (XIV) And for obtaining the common counsel of the kingdom before the assessing of an aid or of a scutage, we will cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons.

Q2: Explain how the following groups of people might have responded to the Magna Carta: (a) widows; (b) merchants; (c) villeins.

A2: (a) Widows gained two main benefits from the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta stated that widows "shall without difficulty have her inheritance" (VII) and could not be forced to remarry (VIII). Before 1215 kings of England could demand fees before widows received their inheritance. They could also force widows to remarry. Of course these changes were only important if you came from a rich family. Poor women gained nothing from these measures.

(b) Merchants made one important gain from the Magna Carta. Merchants would have been pleased that the Magna Carta provided protection for merchants who wanted to sell their goods abroad (XLI). However, merchants would have probably complained that they gained very little compared to the barons.

(c) The barons were mainly concerned with their rights and freedoms and only one clause in the Magna Carta refers to villeins (XX). This clause stated that villeins should "not be fined for slight offence... and for a grave offence he shall be fined in accordance with the gravity of the offence." While it is true villeins would have also benefited from other clauses such as XXIII, compared to the lords, they gained very little from the Magna Carta.