originally published April 14, 2014
It’s surprising how often I find myself stopped on the street by a complete stranger – often a fan of my articles and almost always totally imaginary – asking me why I don’t write an article about the Magna Carta. These folks invariably get my mind-wheels turning; all I know about that particular historic document is that it’s generally taught at the beginning of most modern history courses and forgotten about by the time the final exam is written, and that it had something to do with telling the king to be a little bit less of an asshole.
Well, a little bit of actual reading has taught me that this piece of paper very nearly caused a string of domino-ish events that could have led the crown of England on a permanent (inasmuch as anything in history is “permanent”) road trip to France. These people were so pissed off at their king they almost kicked their kingdom’s entire history square in the proverbial nut-sack.
If there is a moral to the story of the First Barons’ War, it might be that if you’re going to try to mellow out your king, you’d probably be better off just beheading him and starting fresh. Maybe the moral here is that partnering with your enemy will come back to bite your ass eventually. As with many snippets of history, it could be that there is no moral – it’s just some stuff that happened.
On June 15, 1215, King John of England was forced to slap the royal seal on something called The Articles of the Barons. This was a lengthy bitch-scroll penned by a number of wealthy British barons who were pissed off at the king’s rotten leadership and his despot-like iron-fist rule of the land. Screw that – these barons worked hard for their wealth (okay, they inherited it. But it took a lot of long hours waiting for their folks to die), and the king still had supreme control over the land. That wouldn’t do.
So they drafted this document which would be recorded as the “law of the land” – the Magna Carta. The parchment contained a heap of clauses that would maintain the king as their God-plucked ruler of the land, but would limit his powers and keep his grubby fingers off the barons’ freedom. One of those clauses was the infamous Clause 61 – the security clause. This would allow a group of 25 barons to employ the medieval concept of ‘distraint’, meaning they could override the king by force if need be.
The king had signed off on the Magna Carta, but he wasn’t happy about it. After a few months of bitter negotiations, all hell broke way loose.
What started out as a fight over the Magna Carta quickly escalated into an all-out fight for the throne of England. On one side you had King John and his loyal supporters, on the other a group of rebel barons who were woefully under-armed for the mucky mire they were wading into. They needed help. Strangely enough, for this help they turned to France.
Keep in mind that at this point, the Norman Invasion of England had only happened about 150 years earlier; England and France hadn’t yet cultivated the perpetually bitter rivalry that would define their relationship for most of the millennium. Louis VIII, the French prince and son of King Phillip Augustus, was also the maternal grandson-in-law of the late King Henry II. It wasn’t a solid familial connection to the English throne, but it was close enough for the rebel barons, and they really needed a bit of France’s military oomph to kick-start their campaign to toss King John out on his royal keester.
King Phillip Augustus and the Pope both warned Louis that launching a full-on takeover of England was not a great idea. Nevertheless, in May of 1216 Louis and his forces landed on the coast of Kent, ready to kick some royalist ass. King John took off for the Saxon capital of Winchester, which meant that Louis faced almost no resistance as he strolled into London and was proclaimed King of England (albeit unofficially) in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He had the support of most of England’s elite, as well as a thumbs-up from Alexander II of Scotland.
By mid-June, Louis and the rebels had conquered more than half of England. It was a swift string of victories, but Louis’ dad, the French king, couldn’t help but tease his kid about one thing – he hadn’t executed the most obvious move yet. He hadn’t claimed Dover. Dover is right at England’s elbow, the closest geographical location to the continent and probably the most obvious stronghold that a potential ruler would want to snag. And Louis hadn’t gotten to it yet.
So began a 3-month campaign on Louis’ behalf to take the castle. This bloody battle did little more than deplete Louis’ rebel forces and allow the mood of the country to shift a little. Did they really want an all-out civil war? Who was going to benefit from this mess once all was said and done? Certainly not the average Joe and Jane Serf.
Meanwhile, King John was keeping busy with his supporters, trying to take back a few of England’s strongholds for his own.
King John started his siege of Rochester Castle on October 11. He deployed fire ships to keep away any rebel reinforcements from arriving from London. The rebel forces tried to race out and thwack the royal army but they were pushed back. King John ordered forty fat pigs sent over, but rather than use them for bacon (which to me would be the obvious move) he used their fat to burn down the castle’s southeast tower. As winter settled over England, the king’s forces took the castle.
This was the beginning of the end. The tide was turning against the rebels – not because people were siding with the king so much as the barons themselves were realizing that an all-out civil fracas was only hurting their resources. It made more sense to simply sit down and see if they could just get the Magna Carta enforced and end this bloody war. There was just one teensy little problem.
Louis still thought he was on his way to becoming the King of England. This took another year of sorting things out, as one by one the barons turned their forces against Louis. Louis jetted back to France for reinforcements, then returned for another go at Dover Castle, but it didn’t take. The Royal Navy was kicking his ass at sea and he was running out of support on land. Eventually he signed a treaty and sulked back home where he’d get to rule as King of France for three years starting in 1223, before dying grotesquely of dysentery.
In the midst of the war, King John died. This was the catalyst for a number of barons giving up on their fight. The new king, nine-year-old Henry III, was not going to be blamed for his dad’s incessant assholery. The Magna Carta was reissued in November of 1216 with some of the clauses (including the war-inducing Clause 61) removed. The Pope, who had already excommunicated Louis for ignoring him, was on board with the newly-crowned King Henry, and England officially escaped the threat of losing its crown to France.
This paved the way for a peace between the two kingdoms, a peace that would only be shattered a few thousand times over the ensuing centuries. History is wonderfully bloody and treacherous.