The most surprising part of the Great Charter to modern eyes is its sixty-first paragraph, that which openly states doubts as to the king's intention to abide by his promise, and appoints a committee of twenty-five guardians of the charter (twenty-four barons and the mayor of London), who are to coerce their master, by force of arms if necessary, to observe every one of its clauses. The twenty-five were to hear and decide upon any claims and complaints preferred against the king, and to keep up their numbers by co-optation, so that it would seem that the barons intended to keep a permanent watch upon the crown. The clause seems unnecessarily harsh and violent in its wording; but it must be remembered that John's character was well known, and that it was useless to stand on forms of politeness when dealing with him. It seems certain that the drafters of the charter were honest in their intentions, and did not purpose to set up a feudal oligarchy in the place of a royal autocracy. They were only insisting on the maintenance of what they believed to be the ancient and laudable customs of the realm.

That the barons were right to suspect John is sufficiently shown by his subsequent conduct. his pretence of keeping his promise lasted less than two months; by August 1215 he was already secretly collecting money and hiring more mercenaries. He wrote to Rome to beg the pope to annul the charter, stating that all his troubles had come upon him in consequence of his dutiful conduct to the Holy See. He also stated that he had taken the cross as a crusader, but could not sail to Palestine as long as his subjects were putting him in restraint. Innocent III at once took the hint; in September Archbishop Langton was suspended for disobedience to papal commands, and the charter was declared uncanonical, null and void. The troublers of the king and kingdom were declared excommunicate.

Langton departed at once to Rome, to endeavour to turn the heart of his former patron, a task in which he utterly failed. Many of the clergy who had hitherto supported the baronial cause drew back in dismay at the pope's attitude. But the laymen were resolute, and prepared for open war, which broke out in October 1215. The king, who had already gathered in many mercenaries, gained the first advantage by capturing Rochester Castle before the army of the barons was assembled. So formidable did he appear to them for the moment that they took the deplorable step of inviting the foreign foe to join in the struggle. Declaring John deposed because he had broken his oath to observe the charter, they offered the crown to Louis of France, the son of King Philip, because he had married John's niece Blanche of Castile and could assert in her right a claim to the throne. This was a most unhappy inspiration, and drove into neutrality or even into the king's camp many who had previously inclined to the party of reform. But John did his best to disgust his followers by adopting the policy of carrying out fierce and purposeless raids of devastation all through the countryside, while refusing to face his enemies in a pitched battle. He bore himself like a captain of banditti rather than a king in his own country. Presently, when the French prince came over with a considerable army to join the insurgent barons, he retired northward, leaving London and the home counties to his rival. In all the south country only Dover and Windsor castles held out for him. His sole success was that he raised the siege of Lincoln by driving off a detachment of the baronial army which was besieging it.

Soon after, while marching from Lynn towards Wisbeach, he was surprised by the tide in the fords of the Wash and lost part of his army and all his baggage and treasure. Next day he fell ill of rage and vexation of spirit, contracted a dysenteric ailment, and died a week later at Newark (October 9, 1216). It was the best service that he could do his kingdom. Owing to the unwise and unpatriotic conduct of the barons in summoning over Louis of France to their aid, John had become in some sort the representative of national independence. Yet he was so frankly impossible as a ruler that, save the earls of Pembroke and Chester, all his English followers had left him, and he had no one to back him but the papal legate Gualo and a band of foreign mercenaries. When once he was dead, and his heritage fell to his nine-year-old son Henry III, whom none could make responsible for his for his fathers doings, the whole aspect of affairs was changed.

Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.

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