History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 40. Innocent and Magna Charta.

An original manuscript of the Magna Charta, shrivelled with age and fire, but still showing the royal seal, is preserved in the British Museum. A facsimile is given in the official edition of the Statutes of the Realm. Stubbs gives the Latin text in Select Charters, etc., 296–306.

In his treatment of the Great Charter, the venerable instrument of English popular rights, Innocent, with monarchical instinct, turned to the side of John and against the cause of popular liberty. Stephen Langton, who had released John from the ban of excommunication, espoused the popular cause, thereby incurring the condemnation of the pope. The agreement into which the barons entered to resist the king’s despotism was treated by him with delay and subterfuge. Rebellion and civil war followed. As he had before been unscrupulous in his treatment of the Church, so now to win support he made fulsome religious promises he probably had no intention of keeping. To the clergy he granted freedom of election in the case of all prelates, greater and less. He also made a vow to lead a crusade. After the battle of Bouvines, John found himself forced to return to England, and was compelled by the organized strength of the barons to meet them at Runnymede, an island in the Thames near Windsor, where he signed and swore to keep the Magna Charta, June 15, 1215.

This document, with the Declaration of Independence, the most important contract in the civil history of the English-speaking peoples, meant defined law as against uncertain tradition and the arbitrary will of the monarch. It was the first act of the people, nobles, and Church in combination, a compact of Englishmen with the king. By it the sovereign agreed that justice should be denied or delayed to no one, and that trial should be by the peers of the accused. No taxes were to be levied without the vote of the common council of the realm, whose meetings were fixed by rule. The single clause bearing directly upon the Church confirmed the freedom of ecclesiastical elections.

After his first paroxysms of rage, when he gnawed sticks and straw like a madman,212212    M. Paris, Luard’s ed. II. 611.e barons with no intention of keeping his oath. The pope made the fatal mistake of taking sides with perjured royalty against the reasonable demands of the nation. In two bulls213213    Aug. 24, 1215, Potthast, 435.man race had, by his crafty arts, excited the barons against him." He asserted that the "wicked audacity of the barons tended to the contempt of the Apostolic see, the detriment of kingly prerogative, the disgrace of the English nation, and the endangering of the cross." He praised John for his Christian submission to the will of the supreme head of Christendom, and the pledge of annual tribute, and for his vow to lead a crusade. As for the document itself, he "utterly reprobated and condemned it" as "a low and base instrument, yea, truly wicked and deserving to be reprobated by all, especially because the king’s assent was secured by force."214214    Compositionen hujusmodi reprobamus penitus et damnamus compositio non solum sit vilis et turpis, verum etiam illicita et iniqua ut merito sit abomnibus reprobanda. M. Paris, Luard’s ed., II. 619 sq. Another ground given by Innocent for annulling the document was that he as England’s overlord had not been consulted before the king’s signature was attached."215215    The language is the strongest: tam cartam quam obligationes irritantes penitus et cassantes, ut nullo unquam tempore aliquam habeant firmitatem. M. Paris, Luard’s ed. II. 619. See Hurter, II. 656 sq. Some excuse has been found by advocates of papal infallibility for this fierce sentence upon the ground that Innocent was condemning the mode by which the king’s consent was obtained. Innocent adduces three considerations, the conspiracy of the barons to force the king, their disregard of his Crusading vow, and the neglect of all parties to consult the pope as overlord. He condemns, it is true, the document as a document, and it has been said the contents were not aimed at Innocent’s mistake and official offence were that, passing by entirely, the merits of the Charter, he should have espoused the despotism of the iniquitous king.

The sentence of excommunication which Innocent fulminated against the refractory barons, Langton refused to publish. For his disobedience the pope suspended him from his office, Nov. 4, 1215, and he was not allowed to resume it till 1219, when Innocent had been in his grave three years. London, which supported the popular cause, was placed under the interdict, and the prelates of England who took the popular side Innocent denounced, as worse than Saracens, worse than those open enemies of the cross."216216    Potthast, 437; M. Paris, in Luard, II. 627. About the same time at John’s request, Innocent annulled the election of Simon Langton, Stephen’s brother, to the see of York.

The barons, in self-defence, called upon the Dauphin of France to accept the crown. He landed in England, but was met by the papal ban.217217    Thomas Fuller remarks that "the commonness of these curses caused them to be contemned, so that they were a fright to few, a mock to many, and a hurt to none.", John died at Newark, after suffering the loss of his goods in crossing the Wash. He was thrown into a fever, but the probable cause of his death was excess in eating and drinking.218218    Roger of Wendover says he surfeited himself with peaches and new cider. M. Paris, Luard’s ed., II. 667. Shakespeare, following a later tradition, represents him as dying of poison administered by a monk:—
   "The king, I fear is poisoned by a monk,

   * * * * * * * *

   It is too late; the life of all his blood

   Is touched corruptibly; and his pure brain

   Which some suppose the soul’s frail dwelling-house)

   Doth, by the idle comments that it makes,

   Foretell the ending of mortality."

   —King John, Act V. Sc. 6 sq.
ments he received the sacrament and commended his children to the protection of the pope, who had stood by him in his last conflict.

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