This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for May 12, 2017: Moonrise, Aurora, Nebraska

May 12, 2017: on this day: England’s barons deliver an ultimatum to King John

On this date in 1215, England’s barons delivered an ultimatum to King John, which ultimately led to the Magna Carta.

In 1215, England was on the brink of civil war. King John had taxed the church and the barons heavily to fund the Third Crusade, defend his holdings in Normandy, and pay for unsuccessful wars. The barons met in January 1215 to discuss the matter, and agreed to “stand fast for the liberty of the church and the realm.” It wasn’t the first time that noblemen had risen up against an English king, but in the past the aim had been to put a new man on the throne. This time, the barons aimed to change the nature of the monarchy itself. Over the next few months, they wrote up a list of demands.

The charter limited the monarchy’s absolute power and paved the way for the formation of Parliament, and it is the nearest thing to a “Bill of Rights” that Britain has ever had. It guaranteed, among other things, that “No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

King John met the barons at Runnymede in June, and set his seal on the “great charter.” He had no intention of upholding the document, however, and it was repealed almost immediately on the grounds that he gave his seal under duress. But it’s harder to kill an idea, and that original document became the basis for the British legal system, as well as the legal systems of most of the world’s democracies.