King John and Magna Carta

King John's reign (1199-1216) was a low point in the history of the English monarchy. Like his father, Henry II, John increased the reach of royal law, but he ruled by expansive royal prerogative, curtailed Church privileges, crushed adversaries and intervened in cases for political and financial gain. War expenses on the continent and the loss of Normandy alienated John's nobles and helped to precipitate a civil war, while John's own government was partly sustained by foreign mercenaries.

A faction of feudal nobles forced John to accept the historic peace treaty in June 1215. What came to be called Magna Carta (or "Great Charter") was sealed by tradition on the 15th of June at Runnymede. Through the agreement, John's rebel barons sought to restore what they understood as their own liberties and privileges, and attempted to restrict the expanding prerogatives of John and his heirs in perpetuity.

The 1215 Charter features a litany of grievances against John's government, including excessive taxation and fines, undue interference in feudal estates, and encroachment upon the rights of the Church. Among remedies are the famous guarantee that no free man should be deprived of liberty or property without "judgment by peers" or "the law of the land" (c. 39), and that to no one would justice be sold, delayed or denied (c. 40).

The Charter's concern to restore justice, and the extent of the restraints it placed upon John and his officials, is striking. John agreed not to raise most kinds of taxes without the consent of leading ecclesiastics and barons of the realm, and to summon them to request consent. The Charter articulated principles of proportional fines for offenses, and took aim at royal officers who laid abusive burdens on the populace. John never abided by the "Great Charter" and Pope Innocent III quickly declared it void, but John died suddenly a year later. John's son, Henry III, issued an amended version that became statutory law in 1297. Although the Charter had been somewhat altered, it maintained that nothing done against its provisions would have legal force, and remained law in England for centuries. Three clauses, including the famous due process clause, are still good law today.

English law, based in custom and oriented toward practice, saw several attempts at more systematic treatment in the Middle Ages. Although it did not refer to Magna Carta, Henry de Bracton's great 13th-century treatise, De legibus, described English law with reference to Roman law and included contemporary English cases. Epitomes or abridgements of Bracton appeared within the next century, notably the works known as Britton and Fleta. The last great medieval treatise on English law, Sir John Fortescue's fifteenth-century De laudibus legum Angliae, like Bracton included of one of Magna Carta's central tenets: the king must be subject to law.