King John’s military failure at the Battle of Bouvines triggered the barons’ revolt, but the roots of their discontent lay much deeper. King John ruled England in a ruthless manner at a time when the instruments of government and the practices of the courts were becoming consolidated. An expanding legal culture created new expectations among the baronage, who began to count on the courts to protect their interests. Eventually the barons could no longer abide the unpredictable ruling style of their kings. Their discontent came to a head during John’s reign.
In January 1215, a party representing about forty barons met with King John in London to discuss terms of reform, but the meeting produced no concrete results. In May 1215, the barons, along with representatives of the English church, publicly renounced their homage to King John, who responded by ordering the seizure of the barons’ castles. When the barons seized London, however, King John was forced to come to terms. The parties agreed to meet at Runnymede, a watery meadow on the Thames, located halfway between London and the king’s castle in Windsor.
At Runnymede on June 15, King John accepted the terms that would become Magna Carta and placed his seal on the charter. After several days, the barons renewed their allegiance to the king. Within two weeks, as many as forty-one official manuscript copies of the text of Magna Carta were prepared, sealed, and sent to each of the counties, including Lincoln. The Lincoln Magna Carta is one of only four of these that are extant today.
This map from the first edition of Christopher Saxton’s Atlas of the Counties of England shows the area around London, including part of the county of Surrey (at left in green) where Magna Carta was sealed in 1215 at Runnymede, a meadow between Windsor and London deemed neutral territory. King John’s castle was located in Windsor, while London was under the control of the barons.
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King John Granting Magna Carta
This illustration by Ernest Normand, a noted artist in Victorian England, depicts King John granting Magna Carta and is based on “King John Granting the Magna Carta,” a fresco at the Royal Exchange in London (1900). Some of the leading figures of the day surround King John including, to his right, the Earl of Pembroke, and in the foreground, Robert Fitzwalter and Archbishop Stephen Langton. At bottom right, a clerk prepares the press with which the charter is about to be sealed.
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