Once more did all the nobility of Europe pour eastward, embracing eagerly the purpose of their chief. This was the last great crusade, those that followed being but feeble and unimportant efforts in comparison. Not only was the Emperor at its head, but the King of England, son of Henry II, the famous Richard of the Lion Heart, took up the movement with enthusiasm. So, also, though less passionately, did Philip Augustus, ablest of the kings of France. No other crusade could boast such names as these.
Yet the mighty undertaking ended in failure. Barbarossa perished in the East, and the glory of his empire died with him. Richard and Philip quarrelled about precedence, and the French King seized the opportunity to return home, full of shrewd plans for the humbling of his obnoxious vassal sovereign. Richard, left almost alone with his dwindling plague-stricken forces, had finally to acknowledge the hopelessness of the cause. His adventures have been made the theme of many a romance. On his way home he was seized and imprisoned in Germany, and this and his death soon after left the throne to his brother John.
Historians have united to pour upon John every species of opprobrium. Certain it is that he secured his crown by evil means, that he sought to protect it by falsity and treachery. But after all, his rival, Philip Augustus, could be treacherous too, and the main difference between them is that Philip defeated John. He wrenched from him Normandy and many of John’s other French provinces, so that the dominions of the English kings were reduced to scarce half their former compass. Hence the opprobrium on John.
Heavy as the loss might seem, it proved in reality a blessing to the English race. Forced to confine themselves to Great Britain, her kings became truly English, instead of French—which they had been hitherto. England ceased to be a mere appanage of Normandy, ruled by Norman nobles. The Normans who had settled in the island became sharply divided from those who remained in France, and Saxons and English-Normans became firmly welded into a united race. This is what England owes to John.
Moreover his tyranny and falsehood led the lower classes in his realm to unite with the nobility against him. Thus the deepset class distinction of feudal times between lord and serf, the owner and the owned, became less marked in England than elsewhere in Europe. The vast threefold struggle which had everywhere to be fought out between kings, nobles, and commons was in England decided against the kings by the union of the other two.
Their combined strength forced from John the Magna Charta, or Great Charter, the foundation of modern government in England, though the celebrated document granted no new privilege to lord or citizen or peasant. It only confirmed on parchment the rights which John would have denied them. So this also, the corner-stone of liberty, the beginning of constitutional progress, does England owe to her oppressor. Never perhaps has any man devoted to evil done unwittingly so much of good as he.