At Runnymede in 1215, King John (1166-1216) signed the document that laid the foundation of our freedom. While not a myth, the reality is less glorious, writes British historian and media consultant Jones (The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, 2014, etc.) in this lively, popular account of the Magna Carta’s bumpy 800-year ride into immortality.
While contemporary historians often go easy on him, the author’s John is the villain of legend—but one who inherited a host of problems. His predecessors had strengthened England’s central government and weakened the aristocracy, partly in order to better finance their wars. By John’s accession to the throne, many were tired of yielding to an increasingly grasping monarchy. John quickly lost nearly all England’s extensive French possessions, and his expensive efforts to regain them provoked a rebellion, mediation by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Magna Carta. Jones admits that the document was “something of a muddle, a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant king, most of which concern arcane matters of thirteenth-century legal principles.” Rarely does a phrase reverberate such as “King John concedes that he will arrest no man without judgment nor accept any payment for justice nor commit any unjust act.” Both sides immediately resumed a civil war that ended with the monarchy’s victory a year after John’s death. For a century, kings reissued versions as reassuring pieces of public relations before it fell into obscurity, to be revived during the 17th-century English revolutions and in America a century later.
This is politics-and-great-men history documented by medieval archives and unreliable contemporary chroniclers, but Jones has done his homework to produce an insightful, satisfying history of a beloved, if usually unread, icon of freedom.