Magna Carta

Henry 2nd 1154-1189 (21 when Crowned)

Born in Le Mans Anjou, France 1133

Henry owed his Kingship of England to his Norman mother Matilda, daughter of Henry 1st and his vast lands to his father Count of Anjou and his wife Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitou. His father Geoffrey was called Plantagenet because of the sprig of broom (in Latin Planta genista) he habitually wore in his hat. Eleanor had been previously married to the King of France, Louis 7th and was the richest woman in Europe. 

When crowned King of England Henry became the ruler of the largest realm in Europe also the richest and most powerful. In those days this meant he was continuously in the saddle and indeed he made sure there were a number of horses  always available to him at strategic points in his empire. He would generally travel with his court which at the minimum was 100 people. Henry, in a similar manner to most Kings since 1066 spent more time in France than England particularly so for Henry, as Anjou was an area of culture, learning, art, music and poetry.  

Eleanor, his wife of 2 years when he was crowned, was 32 on her wedding day and already a royal mother having been wife to the French King but divorced on the grounds of their close blood relations in 1152. Henry was noted for his sex with other women, perhaps because of his marriage for political purposes to a woman 10 years older than himself. However they produced 9 children which with the 2 she had produced with the French King shows the poor woman had a total of 11. Henry had time to sire 12 other children, 3 with a woman called Ikenai and the remainder with 6 other women.

In addition to these mistresses and after 21 years of marriage to Eleanor Henry eventually found the love of his life the 16 year old “fair Rosamund” who, hidden away in a house at Woodstock (near Oxford England) produced him a son but she died after only 3 years of sexual bliss. 
Henry and Law and Order

Henry is unfortunately best remembered for causing the murder of his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. This must be seen as part of the actions he  took to restore law and order which had gone to pot under his predecessor King Stephen. Firstly he had to deal with the Barons who under Stephen were fighting each other from their new castles on confrontational land. Henry ordered these to be demolished. Then the church needed to respect the law to give a good example to the people. To help him Henry installed one of his best friends as Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

Henry whished to tighten up on all the standard biblical rules like thou shalt not murder, steal or commit adultery. As we know even today priests are only human and commit such offences. Then Henry wanted wayward priests to be tried by the same courts as the rest of the population. Becket insisted priests were above common law and should be tried by the church courts who then as now tend to be lenient. Unfortunately four Knights overheard Henry saying “who will rid me of this turbulent priest” and taking him at his word went to Canterbury and killed him in the cathedral. Henry was devastated and ordered he himself be lashed hundreds of times as penance. 

Summary of the main benefits in law under and following Henry 2nd.

  • Henry introduced trial by Jury for the first time.

  • He also set up civil courts in each county shire.

  • Henry brought the church under the rules of the civil courts. (His arguments with Beckett.) Prior to this, backed by the Pope, the Church was literally getting away with murder.

  • He forbade any appeal to the Pope without his consent.

  • He introduced the law that no man can be tried for the same offence twice.

  • No tenant-in-capite should be excommunicated without the Kings consent.

  • Both Barons and Bishops must come under feudal rules i.e. pay their taxes in cash in preference to kind.

  • Forfeited goods (eg confiscated as a state fine) could not be squirreled away in Churches.

  • That church revenues in diocese where there is no Bishop should be collected by the King.

Henry and his family feuds

With his wife he produced 9 children including 6 sons, two of the boys Richard and John became kings of England. Neither were good sons nor indeed good kings. After some 20 years of rule 3 of his sons Henry, Richard and Geoffrey egged on by their mother, started a separatist rebellion against him in Plantagenet France supported by Louis 7th the French King. This family rebellion was ruthlessly crushed by Henry within a year.

A year later there was a Barons revolt in England supported by the King of Scotland against Henry’s efforts to bring the Barons under the rule of law. This rebellion was swiftly crushed with the help of the loyal Baron Ralph de Glanville.

10 years after the first rebellion by his sons they did it again. As before crushed by Henry but this time two of his sons, Henry and Geoffrey died.

A third rebellion headed by Richard and supported by his gay partner Phillip the King of France succeeded in ousting Henry from Touraine France. When Henry learnt that his favourite son John was also involved with this rebellion he died within the year of a broken heart.

Henry therefore can be remembered as being the most powerful King in Europe at this time but with a dreadful family life where his sons egged on by their mother rebelled against him. The writing was therefore on the wall for the loss of his French territories because.

  • His son Richard wanted to rule the French territories himself in opposition to his father..

  • This was initially supported by the King of France, Philip Augustus who was destined to become the greatest king for France during this period.

  • Richard and then his brother John, when they became King of England were useless territorial defenders as we shall see later.

Ireland 1166

Early in his reign Henry was visited by one of the rulers of Ireland, Dermot King of Leinster, (Ireland was still divided into small tribal Kingdoms), who asked him to come to Ireland to sort out an inter tribal quarrel. Henry sort advice from the Pope who gave him permission to invade and conquer Ireland with the religious objective of bringing the renegade Irish Church under the strong arm of Rome . Henry who had many more important things to do sent one of his Barons, Richard de Clare, The Earl of Pembroke, nicknamed Strongbow, who quickly reinstalled Dermot who then conveniently died. Strongbow rapidly filled the vacuum making himself King of Leinster in his place.

Henry, jealous of his vassal’s rise to fortune visited Ireland with sufficient show of strength to persuade Strongbow and the other Kings of Ireland to pay him homage.

Note: Henry’s territory in Ireland was small only some 5th of the land and centred around Dublin which became known as the “English Pale”.  

Oxford University

In 1168 some English scholars were expelled from Paris. When they returned home they were permitted by Henry the set up a University at Oxford. Along with Cambridge these have remained the premier universities in Britain until this day.  

Richard 1st 1189-1199 (32 when crowned)

The majority of earlier historians show Richard “The Lion Heart” as a hero wearing a Crusaders red cross on a white shirt with a sword in his hand, obviously a popular king. (His statue still stands adjacent to the Houses of Parliament.) But this is far from the reality. He loved fighting and out of his 10 years reign he only spent 10 months in England for the remainder he was either leading the Third Crusade, in prison and only latterly fighting to retain his French territories. So his English subjects hardly new him. England went to pot and his vast empire embracing England, Ireland and half of France lost its centre of authority and became restless, setting the scene for the loss of all the French territories in the reign of his brother John.

Crusades were expensive but popular as the Roman Church absolved Crusaders of their sins where otherwise huge fines would have been paid to the Church. (Penance money also had to be paid by Kings. The Third Crusade was seen to be successful (See Crusades)  as Richard negotiated the right for Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem but failed to regain the rule of the city of Jerusalem as the occupying Islamic army under the Turk Saladin was too strong for him. On his way back to England he was captured by the German Emperor and ransomed for a huge sum. (Capturing Knights and princes and if possible Kings was a favourite occupation in the Middle Ages as huge sums could be raised. This habit saved many lives in battle as a dead Knight was worth nothing but captured alive and he could be ransomed). Richard remained in prison for two years until the amount required could be raised in England. In the meantime Philip Augustus of France made key gains in England’s French territories.

Thus as far as England was concerned the Third Crusade was a disaster because

  • Cash was raised by selling assets in England to finance the trip. For example selling Church and Crown lands and selling the right of self government to certain towns. Not a recipe to maintain central control.

  • Cash was raised to get Richard out of prison. (100,00 Marks)

Both were huge sums, each similar in magnitude to two years taxes. Poor men had to sell their pigs and the Church their expensive plate.

  • Richard,  as was customary at the time, appointed a “ruler” in his absence called a Justiciar, William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely. Unfortunately Richard’s brother John soon took control in Richard’s absence and under his corrupt leadership all the good laws introduced by their father Henry 2nd were ignored. It can be said that if John had been a better ruler the Magna Carta would not have been required.

Robin Hood England’s favourite outlaw lived in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire,  in Richards reign, or so the story goes. As with the legend of King Arthur it is likely that a character similar to Robin Hood existed in these turbulent times.

  • Rich outlaws were quite common after the Norman conquest being Anglo-Saxon land owners kicked off their property to make way for Norman/French Barons.

  • An outlaw was anybody who the Kings courts wished to try but who disappeared. Quite easy when the population was so low and most of the land was forest.

  • Generally outlaws of this origin would have been popular with the locals and would have been skilled with the bow and the sword for defending themselves and poaching the Kings deer or wild boar.  In Robin Hoods case robbing the corrupt rich to give to the poor. 

King Richard was probably homosexual and his best known bed mate was Philip 2nd Augustus the King of France who joined him on the Third Crusade but only played a small part militarily as he was more interested in getting his French lands back from the rule of English Kings even though the current English King was his sexual partner. Richard produced no children although he married a Spanish princess while celebrating his victory over fellow Christians in Cyprus which was then under the rule of Christian Constantinople. The marriage was a surprise to Richard as his mother, Eleanor, turned up unannounced in Cyprus with the said princess and they were married in Limassol.  

Richard died while fighting Philip Augustus’ forces in France.  

John 1199-1216 (33 when crowned)

John was  the younger brother of King Richard and the  youngest son of Henry 2nd.

John is best remembered for loosing all the English lands in France to the King of France Philip 2nd Augustus and for the Magna Carta. In effect a thoroughly bad king. One has to remember that history in those days was written by monks. In truth John was a much better king than the Christian favourite Richard and Stephen both who ignored the problems of the country. John at least tried to deal with them energetically travelling the lands to check his instructions were being carried out. He should be noted for building up the navy, the sea defences and improving the economy.  

The loss of English territory in France

Following the well managed rule of Henry 2nd his two sons Richard and John were both a disaster for England, while the French produced Philip 2nd who can be compared to Henry in terms of effective government and military acumen.

Philip 2nd Augustus 1165 to 1233

  • Hence Philip’s life spanned that of Henry 2nd, Richard 1st and John.

  • Richard 1st as a boy fought with Philip against his father Henry. Henry won these battles.

  • Richard and Philip went on the 3rd Crusade together.

  • Richard and Philip were reported to have a homosexual relationship. Richard although he married produced no children whereas Philip had three wives and a number of children.

  • Philip soundly beat English King John (even though he was supported by Otto 4th of Germany) in battles for French territory to the extent that Philip produced modern day France and John and his Barons had to resign themselves to ruling only England and some of Ireland.

  • Philip was requested by the Pope to help in the Crusade to rid southern France of the Christian fundamentalists the Cathars. He refused but the Cathars were exterminated other than those very few who had travelled to England

  • Philip improved the prosperity and the human rights of the average man in France through economic reform and checking the power of the nobles.

  • Philip died in 1233, John in 1216

John and Magna Carta

Many historians put Magna Carta or the “Great Charta” as one of the turning points in English history which put

  • England on the road to a democratic state

  • And introduced the lawyers in England to the concept of Human Rights as we know it now.

Both put England ahead of the rest of Europe and probably the world in social justice and fair government.

The background to how and why these rules could be adopted in a cruel Medieval environment will be dealt with a few paragraphs later.  

Magna Carta

There were 63 clauses. Here are a few key ones.

Human rights issues

  • No person should be put in prison, have his property confiscated or be outlawed but by the judgement of his equals in a court of law.

  • Justice should not be sold, delayed or refused to anyone.

  • No person should receive such a fine which leaves him in financial ruin and should be in proportion to the offence.

  • No person should be deprived of his means of livelihood.

Business and Trade

  • The same weights and measures should be used across the country.

  • Foreign traders should be permitted to enter the country freely to conduct their business except in times of war.

Parliament and Taxation

Norman and Plantagenet Kings ruled like dictators ignoring the safeguards which had been developed by the Anglo-Saxon Kings with their parliament called the Witan. In King John’s case he demanded excessive taxes from the Barons which had to be collected also from the Baron’s territories and people to finance his unsuccessful wars in France. These wars were of extreme importance to the Barons as in many cases it was their land the English forces were defending. Two important agreements were made:

  • The King could no longer act as a dictator but had to discuss and agree all new taxes and indeed all important issues with a council of 25 chosen Barons. If the King could not agree with his Barons they had the right to declare war on him.

  • The King could only ask for money for himself, if he was kidnapped and ransomed, at the knighthood of his eldest son and the marriage of his eldest daughter.

John’s reign, a chronological summary. 

1166 John was born in Oxford England, Henry 2nd forth son. His elder brother Richard was also born in Oxford of the same mother, the Franco file, Eleanor of  Aquitaine. Richard was 9 years older.

1177 John was appointed King of Ireland aged 11. 

1189 Richard becomes King of England and Ruler of half of France and immediately goes on a Crusade. William Longchamp is made Justicar. Prince John is 23 years old and gets married to Isabella from Gloucester making John Earl of Gloucester and King of Ireland. This was a marriage of convenience.  John being the youngest son of Henry 2nd had no land as it had been already given away. Isabella brought him most of the land of Gloucester. This loveless marriage was one of the reasons John had so many mistresses, some 12 in total producing as many illegitimate children. 

1191  John ousts Longchamp and takes over as ruler of England in Richards absence. John is 25. He is energetic but could be cruel and unjust.  

1194 Richard returns to England but only stays a few months before he returns to his beloved France to defend the lands being attacked by King Phillip of France. 

1199  Richard is killed in France and John becomes King of England and 50% of France. John is now 33. But the coronation is disputed by Prince Arthur John’s elder brother Geoffrey’s son. Arthur is supported by the powerful Phillip King of the other 50% of France.  

1200 John having failed to produce any children has time to fall in love for the first time, a 12 year old French princess, another Isabella but of  Angouleme and granddaughter of the previous King of France. They eventually produce 5 children. 

1200-03 Fighting in France. John and the English Barons against his nephew Arthur and Phillip of France. The Battle for who rules in western France, the English or the French. And for the identity of the English, are they half French of solely English.

John lost. It is not reported that John was a useless general but more that Philip was particularly good.


Philip and Arthur started the conflict by attacking John’s French territories. Arthur was  captured while attempting to take the castle of Mirabeau (where his grandmother Eleanor was staying.) John imprisoned him Rouen Castle where he died, probably murdered by John. Philip was furious and with the extra energy of hatred took all English lands in France with the exception of the extreme western part on the Atlantic coast north of Spain and south of the river Loire. (approx 300 miles north south by 50 miles. Or Bordeaux and the west of Gascony.

The land lost included Normandy, perhaps still the emotional home of the English Kings, and its loss caused John and the Barons (who had also lost much land) to consider England as their home (or perhaps their only safe home) for the first time. 

1205 The power of a Medieval Pope. A religious upheaval was commenced by the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury. John and his elder monks voted for John de Grey Bishop of Norwich but the younger monks chose a Reginald. John sent to Rome for an adjudication. Pope Innocent 3rd ignored both local preferences and appointed Stephen Langton who King John rejected. 

1208  The Pope was furious and set out to punish John and England as follows.

  • The Pope pronounced an interdict which forbade any religious service to be held other than for the baptism of infants. The purpose was to set the people of England against John. For 4 years nobody could be buried in Church land and no “Mass” was allowed which eliminated the chance of the people “confessing” or the dead being prayed for to move them through purgatory. To the God fearing mind of the superstitious medievals, this was frightening.

  • John still refused  to budge so the Pope excommunicated him which meant John would believe he had no chance of going to heaven. John reacted by seizing the property of the clergy and bishops.

  • Finally the Pope declared  that John was no longer King of England and appointed the French King Phillip to the throne and told Philip to attack England.

1213 After 5 years a religious persecution by the Pope, John and the Barons were in no mood to fight a war with Philip and John agreed to the Pope’s demands and , accept Langton as Archbishop, returned the church property and paid a annual tribute of 1000 marks to Rome. The Pope ordered  Philip to stand down. But Philip was so incensed that he turned his assembled French army on Flanders.  

1214 Flanders was a major trading partner for English sheep’s wool so John had little difficulty in persuading the Barons to produce an army to defend Flanders. Unfortunately Philip was too good a soldier and at the battle of Bouvines, King John’s army under the Earl of Salisbury, supported by the Count of Flanders and Otto Emperor of Germany were defeated. Philip 2nd Augustus is sometimes called  the creator of modern France 

Build up to the Magna Carta.

If the Battle of Bouvines created modern France it certainly created modern England. The English Barons as well as King John had lost all their land in France and so for the first time had to concentrate on making England their only home. There was no real need for them to be bilingual French/English. Most of them had indeed spoken English poorly. They were fed up with the King who they felt must no longer be allowed to be a loose canon and should now be brought under the rule of law, the same as everybody else.

1213  The Pope’s Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton supported the Barons “uprising” as it developed firstly in Northumbria where  the Barons were not old French blood but new self made men of Anglo stock. Langton presented the demands of the northern barons to the others at a meeting at St Paul’s based on the coronation charter of Henry 1st.

1214 At Bury St Edmunds the Barons took an oath to compel King John to sign a charter detailing agreed rights and liberties or they would take up arms against him.

1215 the Barons rode into the walled city of London with their charter and were well received by the populace and the King saw that he had the whole country against him.

Hence the first bill of rights and responsibilities signed under oath by any king anywhere in the world.  

This was not the end of the story.

King John appealed  to the Pope who backed John and suspended Archbishop Langton. John immediately recruited an army of mercenaries marched to and sacked Northumbria. The Barons then recruited none other than the son of King Philip of France Prince Louis who on arriving in London found himself the new uncrowned popular King of England. John still in the north hurried towards London and en-route took a  short cut over the Wash with his army and all his wealth including the crown of Edward the  Confessor.(Also more importantly all the jewellery of his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine who was the richest woman in the world at the time.)  He lost the lot as it sank into the quick sands helped by the rapid incoming tide. A daily occurrence well known to the locals but not the King.

1216  With nothing left to pay his army John fled to Swinestead Abbey in Newark where he fell ill or perhaps he was poisoned and died aged 49.

When King John’s son Henry was made King the Barons and the people dropped the Frenchman Prince Louis.