The Great Charter is one of the most famous documents in history. Regarded as the foundation of English civil liberty, it also stands as the historic prototype of later declarations of human freedom in various lands. In the Great Charter, as observed by Green, “the vague expressions of the older charters were exchanged for precise and elaborate provisions. The Great Charter marks the transition from the age of traditional rights to the age of written legislation, of parliaments and statutes, which was soon to come.”
King John of England, although compelled to submit to the loss of his French provinces in 1204, never after lost sight of plans for the renewal of the war with France. A bitter controversy with Pope Innocent III began over an election for the archbishopric of Canterbury, and resulted in a bull deposing John, 1212, with a command to Philip of France to execute the deposition. John made terms with the Pope by agreeing to hold his kingdom in fief from the pontiff, and to pay an annual tribute of one thousand marks (1213).
John then invaded France, in alliance with Otho IV, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and others, but was defeated at Bouvines, near Lille, 1214. This ended John’s endeavors to recover his lost power in France, and he could only think henceforth of ruling peaceably his own kingdom and preserving, to his own advantage, his now close connection with the Pope. But although the English King’s reign had been full of unfortunate events, the last and most grievous of his trials still awaited him, and “he was destined to pass through a series of more humiliating circumstances than had ever yet fallen to the lot of any other monarch.”
Under the feudal law of William the Conqueror, the ancient liberties of the Anglo-Saxons were greatly curtailed; in fact, the whole English people were reduced to a state of vassalage, which for the majority closely bordered upon actual slavery. Even the proud Norman barons themselves submitted to a kingly prerogative more absolute than was usual in feudal governments. A charter of comparative liberality had been granted by Henry I, renewed by Stephen, and confirmed by Henry II, but had never, either in letter or spirit, been made effective. And now came the great crisis in which the matters at issue—first between the King and his barons, but ultimately between the Grown and the subjects at large—were to be adjusted. The event was hastened by the exactions and impositions of John himself, and by personal as well as official conduct which rendered him odious to his people—these causes at length producing a general combination against him.
The effect of John’s lawless practices had already appeared in the general demand made by the barons of a restoration of their privileges; and after he had reconciled himself to the Pope, by abandoning the independence of the kingdom, he appeared to all his subjects in so mean a light that they universally thought they might with safety and honor insist upon their pretensions.