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» » King John and Magna Carta
King John and Magna Carta History of Britain (история Британии) 

английские бароныGovernment in the Middle Ages depended on co-operation between the king and the barons. As they often quarrelled, it is easy to suppose that they were opponents at heart; or at least that they had different interests, like employers and trade unionists. But when the royal government was strong and successful, the king usually had no trouble with the barons, just as employers and trade unionists get along better when business is good. As a rule, the barons liked a strong royal government, even if that meant some restrictions on themselves. Like most people, they preferred law and order to chaos.

To keep the barons loyal and helpful, the king had to be a man worthy of their respect. King John (1199-1216) fell far short of that standard. Although he was not an evil man, John could be vicious and treacherous. Though clever, he was lazy. Though he had a sense of humour, his jokes could be unpleasant for others. When he went to Ireland as governor for his brother Richard I, he laughed at the old-fashioned appearance of the Irish lords and amused himself by pulling their long beards. The Irish were deeply offended by such behaviour, and no wonder.

Just as foolishly, John angered the English barons. They were already discontented as a result of the heavy taxes they had to pay for the Crusading campaigns of Richard I. John demanded yet more taxes for his French wars and, what was far worse, John's wars were unsuccessful. The barons resented the king's cruel and unpredictable behaviour towards individuals; they suspected him of having his nephew, Prince Arthur, secretly murdered. They were annoyed by John's refusal to seek advice from the men who, according to tradition, should have been his chief counsellors – themselves.

By 1215 John was faced with opposition from practically all his subjects - at least, from all his subjects whose opinions counted for anything. He was forced to give in to their demands and accept the terms of the document we know as Magna Carta, 'the Great Charter' (Великая хартия вольностей).

What makes Magna Carta so important in history is not what it actually says, but what people came to believe it meant. It was not really a statement of the liberties of the people, as later ages interpreted it. It did not say in so many words that trial by jury was the right of every accused person, or that taxes should only be imposed with the agreement of the taxpayers, although these principles were read into it later - for example, by the opponents of Charles I in the 17th century and by the rebellious American colonists in the 18th. Magna Carta was a bit of a hodge-podge of a document. Apart from grave matters of law and liberty, it also dealt with the correct standards of measurement, and with fish-traps in the Thames.

All the same, Magna Carta was something more than the victory of the small class of barons, intent on making sure of their traditional rights, over the king. Its most important effect was to proclaim the rule of law. The sense of the whole charter, as well as the meaning of many of its clauses, made clear that the law was supreme, and that the king, no less than his subjects, was governed by the law.

The charter did not say how the law was to be enforced. The king might be 'under the law', but what was going to keep him there? No sooner had John got away from the barons at Runnymede, where the charter was signed, than he declared that his signature had been forced from him, and therefore did not count. He drummed up some support, mainly from France, and civil war began. Fortunately John died in 1216, leaving the crown to his son Henry III, who was only nine years old. However, the problem of how royal government could be prevented from becoming a tyranny had not been solved. It cropped up again at various times during the next four centuries and, in 1649, it caused the execution of a king.


Одна из страниц Великой хартии вольностей

When Henry III became old enough to rule, he turned out not much better than his father. He was equally untrustworthy and equally unsuccessful in war; he kept the barons out of government by using officials of the royal household, many of them Frenchmen. It was partly the fault of his father and uncle that the Crown was so short of money, but partly his own, for he was a big spender. It was infuriating to pay heavy taxes to the king and then see him spending the money on luxuries.

To be fair to Henry, some of his extravagance had magnificent and long-lasting results. He was an admirer of the arts, especially church building, which he supported generously. He rebuilt Westminster Abbey - another example of French influence, as anyone can see by comparing it with French cathedrals - and parts of many other great churches. Salisbury Cathedral was begun and almost finished in his reign.

When the barons were in conflict with the king, they were always divided among themselves and usually without a leader. For their natural leader was the king. When a leader of real character, Simon de Montfort, appeared in Henry III's reign, the result was civil war. The struggle dragged on for some time: at one stage the king was Simon's prisoner and Simon ran the government. But Henry, however bad his government, could always attract supporters simply because he was the king, and Simon's chief supporters were knights from the shires and townspeople rather than great noblemen. In 1265 he was defeated and killed at the battle of Evesham.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. John Constable.
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. John Constable. 1829-1834

The man who restored royal authority was not Henry III but his son, a far more capable character, who succeeded him in 1272 as Edward I. Edward was a big man with a drooping eyelid that made him look as though he were giving a sinister wink. His legal reforms, like those of Henry II, were really conservative, and were designed to strengthen royal justice. They were not 'modern improvements'. When Edward ordered a careful inquiry into legal rights and land-ownership throughout the kingdom (rather like William I's Domesday inquiry), his reason was to make sure that the Crown was receiving all the taxes of various kinds that were due to it. Edward needed every penny he could get for his wars.

Like nearly all medieval kings, Edward thought of himself as, first and foremost, a war leader. He was determined to strengthen his kingdom, and to leave it greater than he found it. To do that, he had to demonstrate his authority in Scotland and in Wales.

History of Britain (История Британии)

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