When it comes to government in the English speaking world, just about everything tends to go back to the Magna Carta. It’s the fountainhead from which everything else springs. All of those great documents – the English Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights – all trace their lineage to Runnymede.
Having learned in the past few years that the American Revolution was utterly evil and rotten to the core – different from the French Revolution only in degree rather than kind – I began to wonder if the Magna Carta had a dark side as well. I wasn’t disappointed.
The usual narrative goes something like this: King John was terrifying tyrant who was destroying all the ancient rights of his people. But then, a brave and revolutionary group of barons stood up to the bully, and got him to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede. Said document laid the basis for the rule of law, due process, and all that jank. And western civilization has been building on the Magna Carta, and growing brighter, freer, and happier in the 800 years since.
First, a word about King John. No one can deny that he was a deeply unpleasant and ungodly man. But academic historians have been forced to admit over the last several decades that his reputation as a supervillain despot is a myth. In truth, he was no more demonstrably cruel or tyrannical than any other monarch of his era. He was, however, far less willing to flatter and play get-along with high ranking nobles. And that’s what ultimately made all the difference.
In the early 1200s, there was a large group of barons who were used to the king sucking up to them and treating them like princesses. Henry II and Richard I had done this, but John had better things to do with his time. In response to this dissing, a group of barons led by one Robert Fitzwalter decided in 1212 to take the only rational course of action: they plotted to murder him. The plot failed, but rather than executing the conspirators as he should have done, John instead made an increasing attempt to play nicey-nice with the traitors. Needless to say, this appeasement failed, and the rogue barons kept pushing for more.
The barons were after some alleged “ancient liberties” that had been granted to them in the past, and that the king had supposedly violated. Eight hundred years later, the true extent of any legally established baronial liberties is hard to reconstruct. We now know that many of the old documents that the barons pointed to as proof were actually fabrications. Regardless of the truth, the barons had no moral high ground. Their ringleader, Fitzwalter, openly flouted laws and made quick recourse to violence throughout his entire life. And indeed, once the Magna Carta was signed, the rebel barons immediately ignored provisions that were unfavorable to them. “Ancient liberties” and rule of law were fig leafs for a naked power grab.
(In later centuries, dishonest historians tried to give Fitzwalter a better motive by concocting a myth that King John had tried to rape Fitzwalter’s daughter Matilda. There’s not a shred of historical evidence for this allegation, but it would become the original basis for the character of Maid Marian in the Robin Hood mythos).
In early May of 1215, Fitzwalter’s party of barons formally renounced allegiance to the king, making open treason against the crown. To escape retribution, they occupied London while gathering strength. John had recently given the city of London a good deal of governing autonomy in hopes of currying the city’s favor. As one would expect, this didn’t work, and these new liberties only made the city more eager to back the rebel barons.
John was patient and conciliatory until the end. He sought to have the baron’s grievances arbitrated. The barons would have none of this. After John’s olive branches went unheeded, he was forced to sit down with the rebels in June and give into most of their demands. And thus on June 15 was born the Magna Carta. The document was broken into 63 sections, and the first 60 were mostly innocuous stuff. But then in clause 61, the gloves came off. A committee of 25 barons was established, and this committee would have the power to see that the king ruled in a becoming fashion. If the committee complained to the king, he was bound to address the complaint. If the king refused to do so, the committee would strip the king of his power and authority. As one would expect, the 25 barons named to this committee were all anti-royalist radicals, and many of them had been at the heart of the 1212 assassination plot. Clause 61 was thus, in short, a barely concealed means of callously destroying the monarchy.
The Pope at the time was Innocent III. He was no friend of King John. A decade earlier the two had become bitter enemies when John balked at Innocent’s choice for the Archbishop of Canterbury. The resulting standoff had led to drastic penalties placed by the Pope on the English church. But even in spite of all this bad history, when Pope Innocent found out about the Magna Carta, he was absolutely horrified. He declared that the rebel barons were all to be excommunicated if they attempted to see the document enforced. But he went further than that. In a Papal Bull, Innocent actually declared the Magna Carta to be legally null and void, as it was a blatantly evil attack on Godly hierarchy and authority.
Were the barons chastened by this? Haha, no! After getting the news of the Magna Carta’s nullification, they began an outright civil war against the English monarchy. For the next year, the nation was plunged into total chaos. Then in 1216 came the shocker of all shockers. Prince Louis of France crossed the channel, and Fitzwalter, along with many other rebel barons, sought to crown him the true king of England. The mask had finally slipped off completely; the Magna Carta barons were now outright backing the French in a war against the English. It’s difficult to imagine, both in theory and in practice, how the masterminds behind the Magna Carta could have better demonstrated their deranged hatred for the king, for England, and for Biblical truth.
In this dark year of 1216, a double tragedy struck. Both Innocent III and King John suddenly died. John’s heir, Henry III, was only a little boy. William Marshal, who was acting as regent for little Henry, spotted a fleeting opportunity. He met with the rebels, and offered to sign a new version of the Magna Carta in exchange for abandoning the civil war. Thus, two new editions of the document were signed in 1216 and 1217. The rebellion died down, and Louis hopped back across the channel to France. When Henry III came of age, even he bowed to political reality and signed yet another version of the document in 1225 to keep the barons happy.
Innocent’s successor as Pope was Honorius III. If Innocent was the Benedict XVI of the day, Honorius was Francis. Accordingly, he made no effort to nullify these new versions of the Magna Carta, and happily allowed England to live in its newfound (false) peace. Many decades later, one final revision of the document was signed in 1297. Pope Clement V nullified this final revision in 1305, but it was too little too late. The Magna Carta was deeply embedded in English law, never to come out again. The antinomian revolutionaries had won forever.
We all know the rest of the story. In the 1600s, Edward Coke (the granddaddy of all activist judges) and Whig historians began dishonestly interpreting the Magna Carta to mean all sorts of liberal nonsense. It directly inspired the equally treasonous English Bill of Rights, and then the American Bill of Rights a century later. Practically every ungodly evil committed by democratic governments today has the Magna Carta as its most distant root. And sadly, even most Christians do not realize any of this. Modern Popes, probably unaware of Innocent’s Papal Bull, have even been known to use the phrase “the Magna Carta of X” in a positive fashion.
A few days ago, it was reported that sociologists now expect Christianity to virtually die out in England around the year 2067. I can’t think of a more symbolically perfect thing to be in the news right as the 800th anniversary arrives. A nation, no less than a man, will always reap what it sows. The seeds of the west’s contemporary obliteration, it’s godlessness and inhumanity, were irrevocably sown at Runnymede by an evil legion of soulless barons. I don’t know when the madness will end, but today, we can at least remember where it all began.