On a summer's day in 1215 a beleaguered English monarch met a group of disgruntled barons in a meadow by the river Thames named Runnymede. Beset by foreign crisis and domestic rebellion, King John was fast running out of options. On 15 June he reluctantly agreed to fix his regal seal to a document that would change the world.
A milestone in the development of constitutional politics and the rule of law, the 'Great Charter' established an Englishman's right to Habeas Corpus and set limits to the exercise of royal power. For the first time a group of subjects had forced an English king to agree to a document that limited his powers by law and protected their rights.
Dan Jones's elegant and authoritative narrative of the making and legacy of Magna Carta is amplified by profiles of the barons who secured it and a full text of the charter in both Latin and English.
In this richly detailed history, Jones (The Plantagenets) explores the origins and rationale of the Magna Carta by looking at the cultural and social landscape of the era in which it was created. By studying the years leading up to 1215, Jones is able to show how England was changing and growing, in part due to the absentee reign of King Richard I (the Lionheart) and the subsequent excesses and unpopularity of King John. The Magna Carta, created as a peace treaty designed to rein in the king by making him answerable to his barons, was both a success and failure in its time. "Dry, technical, difficult to decipher, and constitutionally obsolete," it was supposed to "pin down a king who had been greatly vexing a small number of his wealthy and violent subjects." Instead, it survived and gained a legendary status far out of line with its original scope and intent. Jones claims that this is because of its symbolism a cry for freedom, in opposition to tyranny and by showing the full context in which it became necessary, he demonstrates that the Magna Carta served its purpose well enough during a time of chaos. The writing style is accessible, if dry, and the text will serve as a useful academic resource.
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