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The Reign of John page 2

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When Christmas Day arrived John was at Worcester, where he was attended only by a few of his immediate retainers and the foreign mercenaries. None of his great vassals came, as the custom was at that season, to offer their congratulations. His attendants tried in vain to assume an appearance of cheerfulness and festivity, and among the people such an appearance had long ceased to be found when the king was present. Alarmed at the gloom which surrounded him, and the desertion of the barons, John hastily rode to London, and there shut himself up in the house of the Knights Templars, which was as strong as a fortress. The temper in which the barons entered upon their cause may be inferred from the seasons which they chose for their efforts, and the manner in which they invoked, as it were, the blessing of Heaven upon them. Some holy day consecrated each step of their way, and marked the renewal of the struggle against tyranny. On the feast of the Epiphany they assembled in great force at London, and presenting themselves before the king, demanded an audience. John was compelled to grant the request, but he assumed a bold and defiant air, and met the barons with an absolute refusal, and the most violent threats. Two of their number were affected by these menaces, and one of the bishops joined them in consenting to recede from their claims; but the rest of the assembly were made of sterner stuff, and firmly maintained their demands. John looked upon their calm and dauntless faces with a dread which he could not conceal. He entirely changed his manner, and descended from invective to expostulation. "This petition," he said, "treats of matters weighty and arduous. You must grant me time for deliberation until Easter, that I may be able, in considering the request, to satisfy the dignity of my crown." Many of the barons were opposed to such a delay, knowing how little dependence could be placed upon the king's good faith; but the greater number consented on condition that Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, William, Earl of Pembroke, and the Bishop of Ely, should be sureties for the king that he would give them a reply at the time appointed.

As soon as the nobles had quitted his presence, John directed his efforts to escaping from the pledge he had given, and took measures which he hoped would bring the rebellious lords within the reach of his vengeance. The important privilege of the appointment of bishops, which in former years had given rise to so many disputes between the Crown and the Church, was now formally abandoned; and when, by this means, John believed himself to have secured the goodwill of the clergy, he caused a new oath of allegiance to be administered by the sheriffs to all the free men of their several counties. He then dispatched messengers to Rome, entreating the aid of the Pope against the treasonable violence of the barons. Innocent listened to the appeal, and showed himself determined to support the cause of his royal vassal. The English nobles had also sent their message to the Pontiff, but he answered it only by a letter of threats and reproaches, which was addressed to Stephen Langton, commanding him and his colleagues a: once to cease their opposition to the king. Langton, with a high-souled courage, the full extent of which we can now only imperfectly appreciate, disregarded the command, and dared to defend a righteous cause, even in defiance of the Pope. The king, as a last effort to sustain his tottering throne, assumed the cross, making a solemn oath that he would lead an army on a new crusade to the Holy Land.

When Easter day arrived the king was at Oxford. The barons of England assembled at Stamford, attended by 2,000 knights, and vast multitudes of their retainers, and of the people. They had marched within a few miles of Oxford, when they were met by Stephen Langton, the Earl of Warrenne, and the Earl of Pembroke, who came to bear their message to the king. The barons delivered the schedule containing the chief articles of the petition, and declared that if their claims were not instantly granted, they would appeal to arms. When the deputation returned to the king, and Langton explained to him the terms of the document which he brought, John fell into a transport of rage, and swore that he would not grant them liberties which would make him a slave. He proposed some modifications of the charter, which were at once rejected. Pandulph, who stood at his side, asserted that the primate of the kingdom ought to excommunicate the rebels; but Langton replied that the Pope's real intentions had not been expressed, and that so far from doing so, he would excommunicate the foreign mercenaries which overran the kingdom, unless the king ordered their instant dismissal.

The barons now declared war against the king, chose Robert Fitz-Walter as their leader, and marched against the castle of Northampton, which was garrisoned by foreigners. "The army of God and the Church," for so they styled themselves, was composed of the best and bravest men in the kingdom; but the strong fortress to which they first laid siege resisted all their attacks. They had prepared no battering-rams, or other necessary engines; and the garrison, on their side, fought with the desperation of men who knew that they had earned for their misdeeds a bitter retribution. After fifteen days the besiegers raised the siege, and marched towards Bedford. The barons were strong in arms, and in the justice of their cause; but their strength was not of itself sufficient to overturn the throne, or force the king to submission. Within the past century a middle class of freemen had been growing up in the country, increasing in wealth and influence year by year. Had the king possessed the affections of the free burghers of England, the Anglo-Norman barons, powerful as they were, would have been driven from the country; but the people knew that now, at least, the cause of the nobles was their own, and they rose with joy to welcome the pioneers of freedom. The men of Bedford opened their gates at the approach of the army, and the citizens of London sent messengers to the leaders, inviting them to march thither with all speed, and assuring them of the support of the people.

On Sunday, the 24th of May, the troops of Fitz-Walter reached the capital. The city of London lay wrapped in that Sabbath stillness which, on summer days, descends like a blessing upon an English landscape, as though Nature herself had ceased from labour. The gates were open, and the music of the church bells floated softly through the air as the "army of God" approached the walls. They passed through the streets in perfect order and profound silence - a mien well suited to convey to all who saw them a conviction of the solemn nature of the duty they came to perform, and of the calm determination with which they would pursue their object. On the following day the barons issued a proclamation to all the nobles and knights of the kingdom who had remained neutral, calling upon them to join the national standard, unless they wished to be treated as enemies of their country. This proclamation aroused the slumbering patriotism of those who received it. The baron, with his troop of men-at-arms, and the knight, whose only property was his horse and his sword, alike hastened to London. In the words of the old chroniclers, there is no need to name the men who composed the "army of God and the Church;" they were the whole nobility of England.

Such a demonstration as this might have made a much braver monarch than John Lackland turn white with fear. Only a very few knights from among his numerous courtiers remained at his side, and these were hardly retained in their allegiance by a mingling of lavish promises and threats. The terror of the king now conquered his rage. Once more he assumed an affable demeanour, and with a sickly smile he told the Earl of Pembroke that the barons had done well, and that, for the sake of peace and the exaltation of his reign, he was ready to grant the liberties they demanded. From Odiham, in Hampshire, where John was then staying, the Earl of Pembroke carried this message to his friends, and informed them that the king only desired them to name a day and place of meeting. The barons replied - "Let the day be the 15th of June; the place, Runny-mead."

The scene thus chosen was well suited to the occasion. No narrow walls of wood or stone, which in succeeding years should crumble into dust and leave no trace, bore witness to the solemn act whose effects were destined to extend to remotest ages - the victory of freedom was gained under the free sky, the dome of the universal temple of God. On the appointed day the king quitted Windsor Castle, and proceeded to the green meadow which was called by the Saxon name of Runny-mead, situated on the banks of the Thames, between Staines and Windsor. He was attended by Pandulph, Almeric, the Grand Master of the Templars, the Earl of Pembroke, together with eight bishops and thirteen other men of rank; but of these, though they stood at his side, few really adhered to the tyrant, or were prepared to give him any advice contrary to the wishes of the people. On the other side stood the barons of the kingdom, attended by a vast multitude, representing all other classes of the population. So completely was the arrogance of the king subdued, so hopeless appeared all resistance, that, with scarcely a word of remonstrance, John signed the document presented to him, which, as the foundation of the liberties of England, is known to us by the name of Magna Charta - the Great Charter.

To the Englishman of modern times, the event of that day bears a deep and solemn interest, far surpassing that of battles or of conquests. He is surrounded now by many of the blessings which freedom gives to all who live beneath her sway. Under her warm smile civilisation grows and flourishes; knowledge sheds around her calm, undying light; wrong is redressed by free opinion; and man, with brow erect, throws off the tyranny of man. In the green meadow by the Thames was sown the seed which bears such fruits as these. Centuries more of toil and struggle may be needed to bring it to maturity. The progress of the human race is slow and beset with difficulties: amidst the present material prosperity, with all the advantages of civil and religious liberty, we are still far from the goal which lies before us. Error still treads close upon the heels of Truth; power is still held by the Jew to the discouragement of the many; poverty still retains her grasp upon half the world, grinding men down to a life-long struggle, with little joy or hope. But the work steadily goes on. "With each passing year flies a prejudice; with each passing year some gigantic wrong lifts up its head and claims and meets redress. Now, at least, the way is open to us, and cannot be mistaken; the light of Heaven shines full upon it, the obstacles grow fewer and weaker every day, the efforts to oppose them grow stronger, and the final triumph is secure.

The value and importance of Magna Charta is not to be estimated by its immediate application to ourselves. Those positive laws and institutions of later times, which secure our rights and liberties, all have their root in this charter, which first established a legal government, and asserted the claims of justice.

Some modem writers who have treated of this subject have thought fit to disregard these facts, and have spoken of Magna Charta as merely a grant obtained by the barons for their own purposes, and that its provisions were framed by them, not with a view to the restoration of the Saxon laws, but for the preservation of their own feudal privileges.

It is evident that the majority of the barons, who were of Norman extraction, could have little interest in restoring the Saxon laws as such; but it is also certain that they were actuated by a strict regard for justice, and that those just principles upon which some of the laws of Edward the Confessor were founded also formed the basis of Magna Charta.

During the reigns of the successors of the Conqueror, the king had exercised the power of exacting arbitrary payments from his subjects under the name of reliefs; of farming out the estates of his wards to the highest bidder; of marrying the heir during his minority, heiresses at any age above fourteen, and widows if they held estates of the crown, giving their hands to whom he pleased. In the reign of John, the exercise of the laws was a matter of common bargain and sale. Bribes - or, as they were called, fines - were received for the king's help against adverse suitors, for perversion of justice, or delay in its administration. Sometimes it would happen that bribes were given by both parties, in which case it may be supposed that the highest bidder would gain the day, the money of those who lost being returned to them. The charters which had been granted by Henry I., Stephen, and Henry II., had little effect on this state of things, and were, in fact, repeatedly violated both by themselves and their successors. By the provisions of Magna Charta, reliefs were limited to a moderate sum, computed according to the rank of the tenant; the wrong and waste committed by the guardians in chivalry restrained; the disparagement in matrimony of female wards forbidden; and widows secured from being forcibly disposed of in marriage. The franchises of the city of London, and of all towns and boroughs, were declared inviolate. The ports were freely thrown open to foreign merchants, and they were permitted to come and go as they pleased. The Court of Common Pleas, which had hitherto followed the king's court, whereby much inconvenience and injustice had been occasioned, was fixed at Westminster.

The most important clauses of Magna Charta are those which protect the personal liberty and property of every freeman in the kingdom, by giving security from arbitrary imprisonment, and unjust exactions. "No freeman," says the charter, "shall be taken, or imprisoned, or dispossessed of his tenement, or be outlawed or exiled, or any otherwise proceeded against, unless by the judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land." The charter also assured the appointment of upright judges, that justice should not be sold or denied to any man, and that the property of every freeman should be disposed of according to his will, or, in case he died intestate, that his heirs should succeed to it.

The barons required securities for the due observance of these provisions. They demanded that the foreign officers of the crown, with their families and retainers, should be sent out of the country; that the barons should keep possession of the city, and Stephen Langton of the Tower of London, for the two months following; that twenty-five of their number should act as guardians of the liberties of the realm, whose business it should be to secure the observance of the charter, and who, in case of its provisions being disregarded, should have power to make war upon the king, and to seize upon his towns, castles, or other possessions, until the grievance should be redressed. By this article the twenty-five barons were invested with the real government of the kingdom, setting aside altogether the royal prerogative - a measure which, opposed as it was to all precedent, must be considered as having been rendered necessary by the duplicity of the king, by whom the most solemn oaths were habitually disregarded.

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