It’s March 26th, 1199.
Behind the parapet of a castle in central France, a 17-year-old boy named Pierre crouches in a gloomy alcove.
Pierre listens closely – straining to hear as the distant sound of his enemies’ voices drift like smoke over the battlements.
Pierre shuts his eyes and clutches his crossbow tight to his chest. He is one of the last two surviving soldiers defending this castle from the English army. His father and two brothers were killed defending this fortress. Pierre knows that resistance is futile, but he’d sooner die than let their sacrifice be in vain.
Soon… Pierre hears the sound of laughter coming from outside the castle walls.
Cautiously, Pierre lifts his head above the parapet to see two English knights approaching below. They seem calm and relaxed. They’re not even wearing their armor. It’s clear they think the siege is already won.
Pierre quickly ducks back. With trembling fingers, he loads a bolt into his crossbow… and draws the string into place. But when he pops back up to take aim, he notices that one of the knights looks vaguely familiar. It takes Pierre a moment before he realizes, who it is: Richard the Lionheart, the widely feared and respected King of England.
Pierre’s chest pounds and his mind races. He’s just 17 years old. This was his first battle and he has never killed anyone. But now he has the chance to slay the enemy King.
Pierre raises the crossbow to his shoulder, closes one eye, and steadies his aim.
He takes a deep breath, exhales slowly… …and squeezes the trigger.
Two weeks later, Richard, the Lionheart will die from his crossbow wound after it becomes infected with gangrene. Pierre soon falls into the clutches of the English soldiers, who show no mercy toward the young Frenchman, who is skinned alive for his crime.
The death of Richard, the Lionheart, is celebrated in France, where the King’s armies have been waging war for years. But in England, the news is received with grave consternation. Many English fear what will happen to the Kingdom now that Richard’s younger brother, John, has ascended to the throne.
Because John is nothing like the sage and gallant Richard. He is callous and self-serving – and his reign will prove to be one of the most disastrous in English history. But at least one good thing will come from John’s regime. As he moves the country further toward tyranny, a group of noblemen will come together to draw up a document, one affirming laws of the kingdom that nobody can break, not even the King. The noblemen will call this document the Magna Carta, and it will come into force when King John adds his royal seal on June 15th, 1215.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is June 15th, 1215: King John Signs the Magna Carta.
Act One: John Softsword
It’s August 1st, 1202, in northern France; 13 years before the signing of the Magna Carta.
A teenage boy rides at the vanguard of a small army. Arthur, Duke of Burgundy, is a pale, fair-haired lad of fifteen. He stands out against the grizzled ranks of his rebel soldiers. But he feels up to the challenge as he sees the stone turrets of a castle appear in the distance. He grits his teeth, unsheathes his sword, and leads his men into the charge.
When Richard the Lionheart died three years ago, he left behind a mighty realm, called the Angevin Empire which encompasses England, as well as large portions of France, including Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, and Aquitaine. As Richard lay on his deathbed, it still wasn’t clear who would inherit this vast kingdom. Many people favored Richard’s nephew: Arthur, the Duke of Burgundy. But just before he passed, Richard named one of his brothers, John, as his successor. John was crowned King, leaving Arthur with nothing but his ancestral domains in Burgundy.
But John is an unpopular king. Rumors of his cruelty quickly alienated him from many of the subjects. And as John’s popularity decreased, support for Arthur grew. Earlier this year, Arthur decided to seize the advantage. He struck an alliance with Philip II of France. And now he and Philip are launching an attack.
Today, Arthur is leading an assault on a castle in Normandy, one of John’s strongholds. Arthur’s men storm the walls and take control of the fortress. But in a matter of hours, King John deploys a relief army that lays siege to the same captured castle and drives out the rebel force. Arthur is seized by one of John’s most loyal knights, who brings the Duke to John’s headquarters, in Rouen Castle. There, Arthur will languish for months.
It’s one year later, in April 1203, in Rouen in Northern France.
Late at night, King John sits slumped before a banquet table, his drunken eyes glowering with menace. Around him, the King’s lords eat and make merry, but John is in a sour mood. The corners of his mouth twitch as he listens to the wind howling around the castle walls.
With his rival, Arthur, under lock and key, John has reason to be happy. But as he sits at the banquet table, slumped low in his chair, the King’s mood darkens. He knows that support for Arthur is growing throughout the Empire. John has always lived in his famous brother’s shadow, and as a result, he is consumed by bitterness and insecurity. When Richard was given the honorific title “Lionheart”, John had been given a disrespectful nickname: “John Softsword.”
So now King John reaches again for his goblet and takes several gulps of mead, thinking about the treacherous noblemen across his Empire, laughing at his expense, while rallying support for his nephew, Arthur.
Suddenly, John leaps to his feet. The concerned faces of his lords swim before his eyes as he staggers out of the banquet hall and descends the steps toward the dungeon. The guard standing idly outside snaps to attention when he sees the King lurching toward him. John snatches a key from the guard’s belt. Then he unlocks the door and stumbles inside.
There, he sees Arthur sitting on the floor in the corner, his head hanging between his knees. John is aware that in England there are strict codes of conduct and widely accepted standards regarding the treatment of political prisoners – especially ones of noble birth. But John has no respect for custom or law.
John slowly unsheathes his sword. He grabs the frightened Arthur and pulls him up by the scruff of his neck. And then he plunges his sword into the teenager’s abdomen. Arthur splutters, as blood bubbles from his open mouth. Eventually, he falls still, and King John lets his nephew’s lifeless body crumpled to the dungeon floor.
John ties a heavy stone around Arthur’s ankle. And then he heaves his nephew’s corpse onto a window ledge and pushes him out into the swirling wind and rain. John hears a distant splash as the body lands in the river below.
With his arch-rival dead, King John hopes he’s cemented his grip on the Empire. But his plan will backfire. Arthur’s disappearance will spark rumors of his murder, and soon, John’s remaining allies in France will turn against him, outraged by the King’s cruelty. Philip II’s army will strengthen in France winning battle after battle against John’s dwindling English forces. And by August of 1204, John has lost almost all of his French holdings. The repercussions of this humiliation will have far-reaching consequences, not only for King John but for the future of western civilization.
Act Two: The Battle of Bovines
It’s July 27th, 1214, one year before the Magna Carta is signed.
On a hot summer’s day in northern France, a battle is being waged in a field outside the town of Bouvines. The sound of clashing metal reverberates through the humid afternoon, as two walls of cavalrymen charge at one another, their horses’ hooves churning up the ground into a muddy, bloody swamp.
Since losing almost all of England’s French lands to King Philip II, King John has been preparing an attempt to recapture territory for the crown. Earlier this year, John formed a coalition with another European power, the Holy Roman Empire, and its Emperor, Otto IV. Together, John and Otto launched a bid to defeat Philip. And after mounting a successful invasion of Normandy, the coalition force met the French army here, a few miles outside the town of Bouvines.
John takes shelter behind the frontline, where he anxiously awaits news of the raging conflict. For John, everything depends on this battle – it’s his last chance to regain some dignity following the humiliating loss of more than half his Empire. He knows he is quickly losing the trust and support of the English nobility. If he loses at Bouvines, too, the failure might spark an outright rebellion.
On the other side of the field, unlike John, King Philip II rides courageously among his knights. With a guttural roar, Philip plunges headlong into the deadly fray. But in the midst of the melee, he feels a sharp tug on the back of his tunic, as he’s dragged from his horse by the hooked end of an English pike. Philip lands on his back in the mud, staring at the fearsome face of an enemy knight looming over him. As the knight raises his sword high above his head, Philip braces himself for the inevitable. But the final blow never comes. The King opens his eyes to see the knight dropping to his knees – impaled on the end of a French lance. Saved by what he believes is the grace of God, Philip scrambles back onto his horse and resumes the charge.
Within hours, the French repel the enemy's advance and emerge victorious. King John flees back to England, disgraced and humiliated again. The triumphant Philip marches to Paris, having successfully seen off the combined threat of John and Emperor Otto IV. And the Battle of Bouvines will be remembered in France as one of the most important victories in its history – preserving French sovereignty in the face of foreign invaders.
But the battle’s outcome is equally as consequential in England.
Opposition to King John’s rule has been gathering steam for years. This resistance is especially fierce among a group of powerful barons, who are growing increasingly perturbed by John’s reckless military endeavors. To pay for these foreign wars, John has imposed exorbitant levies on the barons’ estates, claiming that such crippling taxes are merely the price of victory and loyalty.
But the barons see things differently. They believe they’re paying the price for John’s greed and incompetence. And after the defeat at Bouvines, they decide they’ve had enough. In May 1215, the barons gather in the town of Northampton. There, in a candle-lit meeting hall, the barons renounce their allegiance to King John. And instead, they swear an oath to “stand fast for the liberty of the realm”. For their new leader, they appoint one of their own named Robert Fitzwalter.
Robert stands before the somber congregation and recounts the many ways in which John has abused his power: punitive taxation, wasteful foreign wars, and countless acts of treachery and cruelty that disgrace the name of his royal house.
Robert also quotes a legal proclamation called the Charter of Liberties – issued the previous century by a former king. The Charter of Liberties was designed to protect the rights of the nobility, and the barons claim John has violated it. Now, they want to force him to reaffirm the Charter, they decide to form an army to compel his cooperation.
Later that month, with Robert Fitzwalter at the vanguard, the rebel army marches on London. Once they reach the capital, members of the King’s own royal court defect to the barons, who demand an immediate audience with King John.
Behind the walls of Windsor Castle, John prowls around his royal bed-chamber, muttering curses. He wants to punish the barons’ treasonous behavior, but his advisors have urged him to exercise restraint, saying that violence would only escalate the situation – and further alienate John from his subjects.
Left with no choice, John will concede to the barons’ wishes, agreeing to meet them in a meadow by the River Thames. But in the end, this parley between John and his disgruntled subjects will prove to be one of the most fateful encounters in English history.
Act Three: Runnymede
It’s June 15th, 1215.
On a pleasant summer’s morning, in a meadow beside a quiet stretch of the River Thames, King John sits in a chair beneath the royal banner fluttering in the warm breeze. As John glances at the faces of the rebellious barons he’s come here to negotiate with, his upper lip curls into an expression of contempt.
For the last three days, the King and his advisors have been brokering a list of demands: a document entitled “the Articles of the Barons”. Written in Latin, the document contains a series of proposals for political reform – including limitations on taxation, protection from unlawful imprisonment, access to swift justice, and a reaffirmation of the rights of free men. The document will later be called the Great Charter, or in Latin, the Magna Carta.
Unsurprisingly, John is reluctant to sign a document that restrains his power. But he also wants to appease the barons and stave off a civil war. So, while barons look on, John leans forward, and sets his royal crest into the wax seal at the bottom of the parchment, officially confirming his assent to the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta is unprecedented in English history. For the first time ever, an official document has been created to limit the power of the monarchy, to restrain the government, and to permanently enshrine the fundamental rights of English subjects into law.
But within weeks, John will break his promise, and revoke the Articles of the Magna Carta, sparking a bloody conflict with the barons. But just one year into the civil war, that John had at first saw to avoid, the King will die from dysentery. After John’s passing, the Magna Carta will be reissued by his son and successor: Henry III.
From that moment on, the Magna Carta will become a fixture of political life in England – and abroad. In the United States, the Magna Carta’s emphasis on the concept of individual liberty will be a central inspiration for the Declaration of Independence. And ultimately, the Magna Carta established a Western precedent for enshrining the rights of citizens in a formal constitution; a seminal document that came into force when King John added his royal seal on June 15th, 1215.
Next on History Daily. June 16th, 1963. Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.