After 1066 there were a number of kings, some good, some bad. By 1199 it was the turn of King John I. John was, by all accounts, a thoroughly unpleasant person, and one who wanted one thing above all – power.
By 1202 war broke out with France (again) and John was in danger of losing his lands in France forever. If John were to regain control of these French lands, he would have to fight the King of France, and for that he would need an army, and that in turn cost money. So John set about gathering money to himself by taxing everyone and everything in England.
This was not a popular thing to do, but John was very successful at it. Between 1206 and 1212 he doubled the amount of money he held in his treasury. Eventually he thought he had enough to pay for a war with France. But he was no soldier. He had no plan, and his army was completely defeated by the French. So now he had no land in France, no money at home, and no respect from his barons.
John had squandered all of the taxes he had gathered. Now he wanted more money, But the barons had had enough. They were furious.
Normally, one of them would have been a clear leader who the others could rally around. They would then fight the king for power. But there was no one outstanding leader. So they couldn't do that. Instead they rallied around an idea which was something that had been granted to them by Henry I, John’s grandfather: the idea of liberties and freedoms. John was taking these away, and the barons were having none of it.
So you see that this situation was quite unique. No one else had ever rallied around an idea anywhere else in the world. Watch out for this idea resurfacing in the 18th century as part of the American War of Independence (the Revolutionary War).
Ideas do not belong to any one person, they belong to people, and this is why the next step is perhaps one of the most important steps taken by people in the world – ever. But, of course, at the time they didn’t know it.
The barons each had their own loyal troops. They outnumbered the king’s troops because he had no money left to pay for lots of soldiers. So on May 5, 1215, they renounced loyalty to the throne and marched on London. John was, however, not there. He had moved to his castle at Windsor.
London and Windsor are both beside the River Thames, about 20 miles apart. In those days it was difficult to get about across land because there were no good roads. It was also dangerous walking in forests in case you were ambushed. So most important people moved by boat, and most important places were by rivers. The Thames was the motorway of the time. There was a standoff between the king, more or less imprisoned in his own castle, and the barons in London. There had to be some way out of this. They had to talk.
Magna Carta (the Great Charter) was a Bill of Rights drawn up by the barons saying what they wanted as their minimum terms for becoming loyal again. It was a kind of shopping list. They had to present it to King John, and he had to accept it. So the shopping list was taken to John, who was furious because it stripped him of much power. But he was in no position to do much about it – at least for the time being.
It was a starting document. It was not the final document that was agreed. But there had to be a face-to-face meeting between the barons and the king so that he could say in public that he accepted it.