Indirectly Bouvines was almost as important in the history of England as in that of France. John returned to England foiled, and in great anger; he resolved to give up the French war, secured a truce with King Philip by abandoning his attempt to reconquer his lost lands on the Loire, and turned to attack the recalcitrant subjects who had refused to join him in his late campaign beyond the Channel.
Matters soon came to a head: on hearing that the king was mobilizing his mercenary bands, the barons met at Bury St. Edmunds, and leagued themselves by an oath to obtain from the king a confirmation of the charter of Henry I. (November 1214). At the New Year they sent him a formal ultimatum, to which he would not assent, though he opened up futile negotiation with them through the channel of the archbishop, who did not take an open part in the rising. At Easter, nothing having, been yet obtained from the king, an army headed by five earls, forty barons, and Giles Braose, bishop of Hereford, mustered at Stamford and marched on London. Their captain was Robert FitzWalter, whom they had named marshal of the army of God and Holy Church. When they reached the capital its gates were thrown open to them, and the mayor and citizens adhered to their cause (May 7). The king, who had tried to turn them back by taking the cross and declaring himself a crusader, and by making loud appeals for the arbitration of the pope, was forced to retire to Windsor. He found that he had no supporters save a handful of courtiers and officials and the leaders of his mercenary bands; wherefore in despair he accepted the terms forced upon him by the insurgents. On the 15th of June 1215 he sealed at Runnymede, close to Windsor, the famous Magna Carta, in face of a vast assembly among which he had hardly a single friend.
It is a long document of 63 clauses, in which Archbishop Langton and a committee of the barons had endeavoured to recapitulate all their grievances, and to obtain redress for them. Some of the clauses are unimportant concessions to individuals, or deal with matters of trifling importance such as the celebrated weirs or kiddies on the Thames and Medway, or the expulsion of the condottieri chiefs Gerard d'Athies and Engelhart de Cigogne. But many of them are matters of primary importance in the constitutional history of England.
The Great Charter must not, however, be overrated as an expression of general constitutional rights; to a large extent it is a mere recapitulation of the claims of the baronage, and gives redress for their feudal grievances in the matters of aids, reliefs, wardships, etc., its object being the repression of arbitrary exactions by the king on his tenants-in-chief. One section, that which provides against the further encroachments of the kings courts on the private manorial courts of the landowners, might even be regarded as retrograde in character from the point of view of administrative efficacy. But it is most noteworthy that the barons, while providing for the abolition of abuses which affect themselves, show an unselfish and patriotic spirit in laying down the rule that all the concessions which the king makes to them shall also be extended by themselves to their own sub-tenants.
The clauses dealing with the general governance of the realm are also as enlightened as could be expected from the character of the committee which drafted the charter. There is to be no taxation without the consent of the Great Council of the Realm which is to consist of all barons, who are to be summoned by individual units, and of all smaller tenants-in-chief, who are to be called not by separate letters, but by a general notice published by the sheriff. It has beep pointed out that this provides no representation for sub-tenants or the rest of the nation, so that we are still far from the ideal of a representative parliament. John himself had gone a step farther on the road towards that ideal when in 1213 he had summoned four discreet men from every shire to a council at Oxford, which (as it appears) was never held. But this would seem to have been a vain bid for popularity with the middle classes, which had no result at the time, and the barons preferred to keep things in their own hands, and to abide by ancient precedents. It was to be some forty years later that the first appearance of elected shire representatives at the Great Council took place. In 1215 the control of the subjects over the crown in the matter of taxation is reserved entirely for the tenants-in-chief, great and small.
There is less qualified praise to be bestowed on the clauses of Magna Carta which deal with justice. The royal courts are no longer to attend the king's person, a vexatious practice when sovereigns were always on the move, and litigants and witnesses had to follow them from manor to manor, but are to be fixed at Westminster. General rules of indisputable equity are fixed for the conduct of the courts, no man is to be tried or punished more than once for the same offence; no one is to be arrested and kept in prison without trial; all arrested persons are to be sent before the courts within a reasonable time, and to be tried by a jury of their peers. Fines imposed on unsuccessful litigants are to be calculated according to the measure of their offence, and are not to be arbitrary penalties raised or lowered at the king's good pleasure according to the sum that he imagined that the offender could be induced to pay. No foreigners or qther persons ignorant of the laws of England are to be entrusted with judicial or administrative offices.
There is only a single clause dealing with the grievances of the English Church, although Archbishop Langton had been the principal adviser in the drafting of the whole document. This clause, that the English church shall be free, was, however, sufficiently broad to cover all demands. The reason that Langton did not descend to details was that the king had already conceded the right of free canonical election and the other claims of the clerical order in a separate charter, so that there was no need to discuss them at length.
The special clauses for the benefit of the city of London were undoubtedly, inserted as a tribute of gratitude on the part of the barons for the readiness which the citizens had shown in adhering to their cause. There are other sections for the benefit of the commons in general, such as that which gives merchants full rght of leaving or entering the realm with their goods on payment of the fixed ancient custom dues. But these clauses are less numerous than might have been expected; the framers of the document were, after all, barons and not burghers.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.