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A History of England Principally in the Seventeent

Not to obtain such a revocation from any one


He came down--15th June, 1215--from Windsor to the meadow at Runnymede, where the barons lay encamped, and signed the articles laid before him, happy enough in getting some of them softened. The Great Charter came into being, truly the 'Magna Charta,' which throws not merely all earlier, but also the later charters into the shade.

It is a document which, more than any other, links together the different epochs of English history. With a renewal of the earliest maxims of German personal freedom it combines a settlement of the rights of the feudal Estates: on this twofold basis has the proud edifice of the English constitution been erected. Before all things the lay nobles sought to secure themselves against the misuse of the King's authority in his feudal capacity, and as bound up with the supreme jurisdiction; but the rights of the Church and of the towns were also guaranteed. It was especially by forced collections of extraordinary aids that King John had harassed his Estates: since they could no longer put up with this, and yet the crown could not dispense with extraordinary resources, a solution was found by requiring that such aids should not be levied except with the consent of the Great Council, which consisted of the lords spiritual and temporal. They tried to set limits to the arbitrary imprisonments that had been hitherto the order of the day, by definite reference to the law of the land and the verdict of sworn men. But these are just the weightiest points on which personal freedom and security of property rest; and how to combine them with a strong government forms the leading problem for all national constitutions.

Two other points in this document deserve notice. In other countries also at this epoch emperors and kings made very comprehensive concessions to the several Estates: the distinctive point in the case of England is, that they were not made to each Estate separately, but to all at the same time. While elsewhere each Estate was caring for itself, here a common interest of all grew up, which bound them together for ever. Further, the Charter was introduced in conscious opposition to the supreme spiritual power also; the principles which lay at the very root of popular freedom breathed an anti-Romish spirit.

Yet it was far from possible to regard them as being fully established. There were also conditions contained in the Charter, by which the legal and indispensable powers of the King's government were impaired: the barons even formed a controlling power as against the King. It could not be expected that King John, or any of his successors, would let this pass quietly. And besides, was not the Pope able to do away with the obligation of which he disapproved? We still possess the first draft of the Charter, which presents considerable variations from the document in its final form, among others the following. According to the draft the King was to give an assurance that he would never obtain from the Pope a revocation of the arrangements agreed on; the archbishop, the bishops, and the Papal plenipotentiary, Master Pandulph, were to guarantee this assurance. We see to what quarter the anxieties of the nobles pointed, how they wished above all to obtain security against the influences of the Papal See. Yet this they were not able to obtain. There was no mention in the document either of the bishops or of Master Pandulph; the King promised in general, not to obtain such a revocation from any one; they avoided naming the Pope.[34]

In reality it made no difference, whatever might be promised or done in this respect. Innocent III was not the man to accept quietly what had taken place against his declared will, or to yield to accomplished facts. On the authority of the words 'I have set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms,' which seemed to him a sufficient basis for his Paramount Right, he gave sentence rejecting the whole contents of the Charter; he suspended Stephen Langton, excommunicated the barons and the citizens of London, as the true authors of this perverse act, and forbade the King under pain of excommunication to observe the Charter which he had put forth.


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