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LECTURE 7 - François Guizot, The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe 
The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, trans. Andrew R. Scoble, Introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Charter of John, or the Great Charter (1215). ~ Three epochs in John’s reign. ~ Formation of a coalition among the barons. ~ Civil war. ~ Conference at Runnymead. ~ Concession of the Great Charter. ~ Analysis of this Charter. ~ Its stipulations refer to national rights as well as to those of the barons. ~ John petitions and obtains from Innocent III. ~ a bull to reverse the Great Charter. ~ Resistance of the English clergy. ~ Recommencement of the civil war (October, 1215). ~ Louis of France, son of Philip Augustus, is appealed to by the barons. ~ Death of John (October, 1216).
During King Richard’s absence, the administration of the kingdom had fallen into the hands of the barons: the feudal aristocracy had begun again to interfere directly in the government, both by way of encroachment and of resistance. Still, the acts of the barons had no longer the same character which they possessed under the preceding reigns; they no longer offered an open resistance; they did not demand any new charters; they did not petition for the observance of former ones: but they silently collected their forces in anticipation of astruggle which was to be decisive. We find them submitting to the exactions which Richard imposed on all classes of society, both for his crusade and for his ransom. Nevertheless, the old maxims as to the necessity of obtaining the consent of the barons to every extraordinary imposition, had revived with new vigour. This right of giving consent to tributes was vindicated with an increasingly determined firmness; and in the first assembly, which Richard held at Nottingham after his return from the East, he was unable to establish an im-post of two shillings on every hide of land until he had obtained the consent of his barons. Already every tribute that was levied on the sole authority of the king had begun to stir up a spirit of resistance. This resistance declared itself as soon as John ascended the throne, and the opposition which had been preparing during the reign of Richard then started into prominence.
The reign of John may be divided into three epochs: from 1199 till 1206, he was occupied with his quarrels with the king of France, and with the struggle which arose from the refusal of the barons to second him in his continental enterprises. From 1206 to 1213, John was occupied by his disputes with the Pope and the clergy. Lastly, from the year 1213 to the close of his reign, his position with reference to the barons and the clergy became more and more hostile; it revealed to him their power and his own feebleness; and constantly succumbing before them, we see him yielding one point after another to the clergy and barons, who were always united in their attacks upon him, until at length he granted that celebrated charta usually called Magna Charta, which is a lasting monument of John’s defeat and the abiding basis of the English constitution.
John was not the lawful heir to the crown; it belonged to his nephew, Arthur, Duke of Bretagne, whose rights were further confirmed by a testament of Richard. Nevertheless, by his largesses and his yielding disposition, John found no difficulty in usurping the throne of England. The opposition was stronger in his continental possessions; the feudal ideas there prevailing favoured the system of representation, and the people were more disposed to recognize the claims of a son than those of a brother. Anjou, Poitou, Maine and Touraine declared for Arthur. In 1201 (others say in 1204) John demanded of the barons, whom he had assembled at Oxford, that they should assist him in the war which he purposed carrying on in France. They required, as the price of their assistance, that the king should promise to restore to them their liberties and privileges. John, without having granted anything to them, succeeded in winning over one after another, until he had obtained from each individually what had been refused to him by all when assembled. Nevertheless, this opposition showed that the coalition among the barons had taken shape and consistence.
John, who had as yet done nothing to deserve that his usurpation should be overlooked, rendered himself odious by an imprudent divorce, and by vexatious indignities. He introduced into his retinue, bullies, whom he called champions of royalty; and he obliged the discontented barons to enter into the lists with them, and to settle, by these pretended judicial combats, their disputes with the crown. At length, his exactions, his tyrannical proceedings, and above all, the murder of Arthur, whom he is said to have assassinated with his own hand, excited against him an almost general rising. Abandoned by his barons, driven from Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, and a part of Poitou, John, instead of conciliating the minds of his people, only acted in such a manner as to alienate them more and more, and only defended himself by rendering himself more odious. A new escuage of two marks and a half for every knight’s fief was extorted from the barons. John had, therefore, to endure a new refusal when he asked them a second time to follow him to the Continent. In vain was it that he employed those means which had before succeeded; he was obliged to yield, and to allow Philip Augustus to take possession of Normandy, and reunite it to the crown of France.
It was not enough for John that he had entered into hostilities with the lay aristocracy; he still further made himself inimical to the clergy. On the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Augustin monks had arrogated to themselves the right of appointing his successor without the consent of the king. John, nettled by this invasion of his prerogatives, united with the bishops, who also protested against an election in which they had taken no part, and in concert with them, nominated the Bishop of Norwich to the vacant see. Upon this, Innocent III. interfered in the dispute; but without confirming either of the two elections, he ordered the English clergy to choose Cardinal Stephen Langton. The king, enraged against the Court of Rome, drove all the monks from Canterbury, and made himself master of their revenues. Accordingly, the Pope excommunicated the monarch, placed the whole kingdom under his ban, and released his subjects from the oath offidelity which they had sworn to John. Moreover, he charged Philip Augustus to execute his decrees, and offered to him the crown of England. Philip eagerly accepted the present, while John, frightened by the double danger which pressed upon him, demanded, but in vain, assistance from his barons; he had acted unjustly towards them, and now he found them indifferent to his misfortunes. At last, stripped of all resources and left without hope, he sought safety in submission, and saved himself by means of base servility: he declared himself a vassal of the pope, and engaged to pay him annually a tribute of a thousand marks.
After John had thus ransomed his crown, he soon endangered it again by renewed acts of imprudence; his base tyranny, and his criminal attempts on the wife of Eustace de Vesci, roused the barons against him, and their opposition was directed and stimulated by the primate Langton.
It is not to be wondered at that the feudal aristocracy should act under the guidance of an ecclesiastic; the two orders made common cause, and this coalition, which preceding kings had always endeavoured to prevent, was one of the effects of John’s odious and absurd conduct. He forgot that the royal power could only maintain itself so long as the power of the clergy and that of the barons balanced one another; when they united, he was obliged to succumb. Their union was the result of John’s base submission to the Holy See; the English clergy, tired of the despotism of Rome, and regretting the loss of their privileges, openly embraced the cause of national liberty.
Such was the pervading feeling, when (August 25, 1213) an assembly of the barons was convened at London. In one of their meetings, Cardinal Langton informed them that he had found a copy of the charter of Henry I., which was then entirely forgotten; this charter was read to the assembly, and received with enthusiasm. Another meeting was held at Saint Edmundsbury (November 20, 1214), and there each baron, laying his hand upon the altar, took an oath that he would use his efforts to force the king to restore in full vigour the charter of Henry I. They soon presented themselves at London in arms, and on January 5, 1215, they demanded from John, in a formal and positive way, the renewal of this charter, as well as of the laws of Edward the Confessor. John, terrified by their firmness, requested that some leisure might be granted to him in order to think over these demands, and accordingly his answer was deferred till Easter. During this interval, he endeavoured to introduce division among his enemies, and in the first place, wishing to conciliate the clergy, he granted them by a charter the liberty of electing their own bishops and abbots, and sent William de Mauclerc to Rome to complain of the audacity of the barons. They too despatched Eustace de Vesci to Rome, to represent to the pontiff the justice and sacredness of their cause. This embassy, however, failed in its object; the Pope condemned the barons: but they were not to be intimidated from their purposes, and John, determining to make another effort in order to secure the support of the church, took the cross on the 2nd of February, 1215, and made a vow to lead an army into Palestine.
The respite, however, which the barons had granted to the king came to an end, and they met again at Stamford in Lincolnshire, on the 19th of April, 1215, being followed by nearly two thousand knights in arms. The king asked them what their claims were; they made at Stamford the same answer as they had made in London, and presented the charter which they had sworn to establish. “And why do they not demand my crown also?” exclaimed John in his fury; “by God’s teeth, I will not grant them liberties which will make me a slave.” This answer was taken as a declaration of war, and on the 5th of May following, the barons met at Wallingford, solemnly renounced their oath of allegiance, and at the same time named Robert Fitz-Walter general of the “army of God and of Holy Church.”
War was declared: in vain did the Pope address letters to the barons, in which he commanded them to desist from their enterprise; the hostilities which had been commenced only continued with greater vigour, and on the 24th of May, the triumphant barons took possession of London with the consent of the citizens. John left the city and retired to Odiham, in the county of Hampshire, with no other escort than seven knights. From his retreat he attempted, without success, to enter into negociations; he proposed the intervention of the Pope, but this was also refused: ba ﬄ ed in all his attempts, he was at length necessitated to acquiesce in the law which had been forcibly imposed on him.
On the 13th of June, a conference was opened in the plain called Runnymead, between Windsor and Staines. The two parties had separate encampments, as declared enemies; after some trifling debates, the king at first adopted the preliminary articles, and four days after, on the 19th of June, 1215, he made the grant of the famous act known by the name of the Great Charter—Magna Charta.
This charter, the most complete and important that had yet appeared, may be divided into three distinct parts; one referring to the interests of the clergy, another regulating those of the nobility, and the third, those belonging to the people. This methodical division is not taken from the order in which the articles of the actual charter are distributed, but I have here adopted it in order to render my account of it more natural and distinct.
The Great Charter refers but little to ecclesiastical interests, since they had been settled by the charter already granted to the clergy. All that was therefore required was that this should be confirmed. This accordingly is done in the first article, which grants a general confirmation to all ecclesiastical immunities and privileges.
The privileges of the laity, on the other hand, were more uncertain, and more strongly contested; it was therefore necessary that they should be minutely investigated and separately conceded. The Great Charter is almost entirely devoted to the settlement of the rights, and the confirmation of the privileges, claimed by the laity.
In the first place, it determines with precision what had been obscure and ambiguous in the feudal laws; and it fixes the amount of relief which the immediate or indirect inheritors of fiefs should pay. Hitherto this relief had been indeterminate. (Arts. 2 to 3.)
Then follow the precautions prescribed respecting the marriage of feudal wards, and those which regard the widows and children of vassals. (Arts. 6 to 8.)
The right and mode of collecting aids and escuages, are regulated by the two following articles:
Art. 12. That no escuage or extraordinary aid shall be imposed in our kingdom, except by the national council of our kingdom, unless it be to ransom our person, to equip our eldest son as a knight, and to marry our eldest daughter: and for these last cases only a reasonable amount of aid shall be demanded, &c.
Art. 14. In order to hold the national council of the kingdom, for the purpose of imposing any other aid than for the three cases heretofore mentioned, or to impose an escuage, we will call together the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and great barons, individually and by letters from ourself; and we will assemble together by means of our viscounts and bailiffs, all those who are directly dependent upon us. The great convocation shall be made on a fixed day, namely, at intervals not greater than forty days, and in an appointed place; and in the letters of convocation we will expound the reason of such convocation; and the convocation thus made, the business shall be transacted on the day appointed, by the council consisting of those who are present, although all those who have been summoned may not have arrived.
This charter is the first document in which we find a distinction established between the greater and lesser barons, and the higher and lower clergy; an important fact, since it may perhaps be regarded as the original source of the separation between the two Houses of Parliament.
Lastly, several articles have for their object to limit the rights of the king on the lands of his tenants, to fix the amount of fine imposed on beneficiaries according to the gravity of their offence, to determine the length of time during which lands should remain sequestrated on account of felony; in one word, to give to the barons greater independence and security than they had ever before enjoyed.
These are the principal enactments of the Great Charter in favour of the nobility; up to this point, we find only sanctions given to particular privileges, we have only met with that which favours the interests of certain classes in society. But it contains also clauses of wider and more general application; it has for its object also the interests of the nation as a whole.
First of all, almost all the immunities granted to the barons with respect to the king, the vassals obtained with respect to their lords. These were not allowed from this time to collect aids and escuages on their lands, except in the same cases and in the same manner as the king. (Art. 15.)
Justice was for the future to be administered in a fixed and uniform manner; the following are the articles in which this important provision is expressed:
Art. 17. The court of common pleas shall not follow our court (curia), but shall be held in a fixed place.
Art. 18. We, or if we are absent from the kingdom, our chief justiciary, shall send four times a year into each county two judges, who, with four knights, chosen by each county, shall hold the assizes at the time and place appointed in the said county.
Art. 39. No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned, or dispossessed of his tenement, or outlawed, or exiled, or in anywise proceeded against; we will not place or cause to be placed hands upon him, unless by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
Art. 40. Justice shall not be sold, refused, or delayed to any one.
Moreover, the king promises to appoint only capable and upright judges (Art. 41); to forbid their condemning any person whatever, without having previously heard the witnesses (Art. 38); to reinstate every man who had been dispossessed without legal judgment (Art. 32); to repair the injuries committed under Henry II., and Richard I. (Art. 53); to put a stop to the imposts for the construction of bridges (Art. 23); and to interdict annoyances of all kinds inflicted either on townsmen, merchants, or villeins (Arts. 20, 26, 28, 30, 31).
He grants and assures to the city of London, as well as to all other cities, boroughs, towns, and harbours, the possession of their ancient customs and liberties (Art. 13).
Lastly, the 41st Article provides that all merchants shall have full and free liberty of entering England, of leaving it, of remaining there, and of travelling there by land and by water, to buy and to sell without being subject to any oppression (male tolta) according to the ancient and common usages, &c.
These, then, are the concessions made to promote the interests of all.
It is not, however, enough that rights should be recognized and promises made; it is further necessary that these rights should be respected, and that these promises should be fulfilled. The 61st and last article of the Great Charter is intended to provide this guarantee. It is there said that the barons shall elect twenty-five barons by their own free choice, charged to exercise all vigilance that the provisions of the Charter may be carried into effect; the powers of these twenty-five barons is unlimited: if the king or his agents allow themselves to violate the enactments of the Charter in the smallest particular, the barons will denounce this abuse before the king, and demand that it be instantly checked. If the king do not accede to their demand, the barons shall have the right, forty days after the summons has been issued by them, to prosecute the king, to deprive him of his lands and castles (the safety of his person, of the queen, and of their children, being respected), until the abuse has been reformed to the satisfaction of the barons.
Though such a right was granted, no guarantee was thereby given; it only authorized civil war; it was to perpetuate the struggle indefinitely, and formally to leave the ultimate decision of the question to force. It was still far from being a regularly constituted political guarantee; but the spirit of that age was not capable either of discovering or of comprehending such a guarantee—it could only understand the recognition of its rights. However, the forcible guarantee which the Great Charter established was so far valuable, inasmuch as it centralized the feudal aristocracy by organizing the council of barons.
It has been often said that the Great Charter would not have been supported by the barons had not it not been for its influence on their special interests. This opinion is untenable: how is it possible that at least a third of the articles should have related to promises and guarantees made on behalf of the people, if the aristocracy had only aimed at obtaining that which should benefit themselves? We have only to read the Great Charter in order to be convinced that the rights of all three orders of the nation are equally respected and promoted.
Another question has been raised, as to whether John did or did not grant a special charter relating to forests at the time when he granted the Great Charter. Mathew Paris is the only author who speaks of this charter of forests, and there are several reasons why his authority should in this matter be rejected. First of all, the preliminary articles of the Great Charter contain nothing on this point; in the second place, Articles 44, 47, and 48 in the Great Charter itself settle whatever relates to forests; and lastly, the king and the Pope, in their correspondence prior to these events, make no allusion to this twofold concession.
When the king had distinctly adopted each article of the Great Charter, the agreement between him and his barons, which had been concluded on the 15th of June, was executed in order to ensure the fulfilment of his engagements. The guarding of the city of London was entrusted to the barons till the 15th of August following, and that of the Tower to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
John dissembled at first, and appeared to submit without any reserve to all the sacrifices which were imposed upon him; but such a mask soon became intolerable to him. After a short time he broke out into complaints and threatenings, and retired in fury to the Isle of Wight. While there, he procured the enrolment of an army of Brabanters in order to regain his power by battle, and despatched a messenger to Rome beseeching for aid against the violence that had been done him. Innocent III., hearing what had occurred, and irritated by the audacity of the barons, whom he called his vassals, annulled the Great Charter, and excommunicated all the barons who had joined in the rebellion.
The king, trusting to this powerful support, threw aside the mask, and retracted all his engagements. But he speedily perceived that those spiritual weapons, which had recently been so potent when opposed to him, were now without value when placed in his own hands. Archbishop Langton refused to pronounce the sentence of excommunication. He was summoned to Rome and suspended, but in vain; the clergy sustained him in his disgrace, and confirmed his refusal. John attempted ineffectually to divide the two orders—whenever he made any preparations for fighting, they became inseparable allies.
John had now no other hope except in the support of his foreign mercenaries; he made one last effort, and in the month of October 1215, war was again enkindled between him and the barons. The attack was unforeseen; the barons being suddenly surprised retreated before the king, who advanced in triumph as far as Rochester Castle, of which he made himself master after an obstinately resisted siege. He made prisoner its governor, William d’Albiney, one of the twenty-five barons appointed to guard the maintenance of the charter, and the most distinguished captain among them: this was an irreparable loss to their party; and from this moment the king met with no regular resistance. His tyranny might now glut itself with vengeance; he let loose his satellites, and the entire kingdom was soon filled with the devastating effects of his rage.
Nevertheless, some barons in the north still resisted him manfully; and the remnants of the coalition combined with them; but feeling themselves too weak, they sought in their turn safety from a foreign ally. The crown of England was offered in their name to Prince Louis, son of Philip Augustus, who thereupon sent an army to attempt the conquest of England.
Louis had scarcely landed when the aspect of affairs entirely changed. John, abandoned by his friends and by his soldiers, lost in a short time all that he had recovered. The entire kingdom fell into the hands of his young rival, and Dover was the only town which remained faithful to John. Prince Louis, however, though he had so far succeeded, did not establish himself on his newly acquired throne. The predilection which he invariably manifested for the French nobles could not but be distasteful to the English barons, and the avowals of the Count of Melun, made on his deathbed, had the effect of detaching almost all the nobility of the kingdom from the side of Louis. This noble induced the barons to distrust the king, who, he affirmed, fully intended to dispossess all of them, and to distribute their lands among his favourites and natural subjects. This disclosure, whether it was true or false, had a powerful effect on the minds of the barons, and most of them renewed their allegiance to their former king.
John had now set his army on foot, and fortune seemed to promise him new successes, when death surprised him on the 17th of October, 1216. This event was more fatal to Louis than a lost battle could have been. The hatred of the English to their king died with him—they hastened to rally round his young son—a general defection quickly ruined the already tottering cause of the French prince, and after he had continued this useless struggle for a short time, he abandoned a throne for the offer of which he was indebted merely to the accidental distress of the English barons, and which he would never have been able to secure by the mere force of his arms.