68. King John and Magna Carta. Though they sometimes made mistakes, William the Conqueror and Henry II were good kings and usually tried to be just. But England sometimes had wicked rulers. King John, a son of Henry II, was the worst.

Though fierce, he was also cowardly, and he would never keep a promise. Worst of all, he was a tyrant who cared nothing for the good of his people.

When a young man he fought against his father and helped to bring poor old Henry to a sorrowful death. Then be played traitor to his elder brother, the famous King Richard of the Lion Heart. When John had at last become king he caused his own nephew to be shamefully slain.

From the days of William the Conqueror every king of England had also been ruler of Normandy in France. But John had a war with the King of France, was disgracefully defeated, and lost all his possessions in that country.

When the pope named the wise and brave Stephen Langdon to be Archbishop of Canterbury, John, who wanted to rob the churches, swore in fury that be should never enter the country. In reply the pope closed every church in England. No bells rang to call the people to prayer or to. service on the Sabbath. No priest could preach. The dead could not be buried; the living might not marry. Every church stood silent, and grass grew about the doors.

People cried out against the king, but John only laughed. Yet when the pope declared that John was no longer king, and called upon the ruler of France to take his place, John, terrified, gave in and weakly begged the pope for mercy. He agreed to be his subject, and to send him every year a large sum of money. Such conduct was shameful.

Most cruel was John to his own subjects. He let them be wrongfully imprisoned and took their money contrary to law. At last the barons and people could stand it no longer. They remembered that their forefathers had been free men and had had rights.

So they demanded that John should not act against the old customs of England. When he paid no attention they gathered an army and marched against him. Their leader was the sturdy Stephen Langdon who, though an archbishop, felt that it was his duty to fight for the right.

Few would take up arms for the king, and be was helpless. On a meadow called Runnymede beside the Thames River, "where the rushes grow green," John met his rebellious subjects.

Here took place a remarkable scene. Round about on the green turf stood the barons, with the great archbishop at their bead. Their faces were grim and determined. Swords and spears were in their bands, and the light gleamed from their clanking armor. Above waved the banners which they had carried in many a battle. Before them was the cruel king, clad in his royal robes but trying hard to conceal his rage and fear.

Sternly the barons told John that he must sign a great document or charter in which they had written down all the rights belonging to the people of England. There was no way out. John wrote his name at the bottom, and put on his royal seal. Then in turn the archbishop and all the great barons signed the charter and attached their seals. (1215 A.D.)

No wonder that Englishmen love "Magna Carta," the Great Charter. It proved that they were free. It says that no one shall be imprisoned without proper trial, and that no money shall be taken unless with the consent of the Great Council of the kingdom. There in black and white are set down all the other liberties of the English people. The great nobles had forced the king to sign it, but they did not forget the other classes. The freedom of the towns and of the merchants was secured, as well as their own.

Though kings have often tried to break this charter, Englishmen, and Americans who are their descendants, have never forgotten it. Wherever in the whole wide world Englishmen have gone,—in the United States, in the woods of Canada, in the bush of Australia, in the jungle of Africa,--it is still the law.

John was furious over what had happened. When the barons were gone, it is said that in his terrible anger he frothed at the mouth, rolled on the floor, and with his teeth gnashed the rushes which in those days took the place of a carpet. But he could not undo what he had done.

As soon as he had a chance this faithless king tried to break the Great Charter, but he could not make his subjects forget that he had signed it. The rest of his reign was of course filled with wickedness and confusion. And he came to a pitiful end. While he was crossing a river with his army the tide rose quickly and some of his men were drowned. That night he took a huge supper of peaches and new ale. In the morning John was found dead.

69. How Parliament Grew. Magna Carta did a great deal to keep the English king from acting unjustly to his subjects. But something more was needed before the people themselves could have much share in making the laws.

In England to-day the body of men who make the laws is called Parliament. Parliament is very old, but it was not always called by that name. When the forefathers of the English, the Anglo-Saxons, still lived in the forests of Germany, all the warriors of a tribe used to meet in council to talk over and decide matters. This "folk-moot" was really the beginning of Parliament, and the first Parliament House was no doubt only an open place in the forest where the tall warriors assembled and, amid the clashing of weapons, shouted out their consent or disapproval of the proposals of the chiefs.

Later, when the Anglo-Saxons had conquered England, they still had such meetings. But now it was no longer possible for all the warriors to assemble in one place. So the king summoned only some of the most powerful and wise men. Thus the old "folk-moot" changed into the "Witan," or "Council of the Wise Men," and the king was not supposed to take any important step without asking their advice.

Though William the Conqueror was a Norman and also a man who always liked to do as he pleased, he had still tried to keep as many of the old English customs as be could. He knew it would be easier to rule the conquered Anglo-Saxons if he did it in the ways to which they were accustomed. So when any great thing was to be done, he still summoned leading men to meet with him in council. Thither came the heads of the church, the great archbishops and bishops in their priestly robes, as well as the powerful nobles or barons to whom he had given great estates. The Normans called such meetings at first the "Great Council," and later "Parliament."

Even the great barons did not as yet often venture to oppose the will of strong kings like the Conqueror and Henry II. But we have seen how they dared to withstand King John and how, clad in their suits of mail, and with their swords in their hands, they had met him at Runnymede and forced him to grant the Great Charter. Among many other things the Charter said that the king must not take his subjects' money except by the consent of the Great Council. When he wanted to collect heavier taxes, he must call Parliament.

This was an important gain for England. But Parliament was still made up only of the nobles and great officers of the church. Ordinary citizens had no share in it.

A great change was at hand, however. The son of John, King Henry III, proved to be not much better than his father. He was indeed not so fierce and cruel, but he wanted his own way and would not rule wisely. He spent money foolishly, and liked foreigners better than Englishmen. To some worthless foreign favorites he gave high offices and great estates. Worse than all, King Henry would not remember his promises or keep the Great Charter.

But the English barons remembered how they had curbed King John. Led by a strong and brave man, Earl Simon de Montfort, they rebelled. Of this true hero we do not know much, save that he had been born in France and had come to England after his marriage with a rich English lady. But though England was only his adopted country, he was a true Englishman in spirit and was wise and good. Earl Simon and his barons overthrew and captured the king in a battle.

Since King Henry was in his hands, the earl became for a time the real ruler. Soon Simon called a Parliament. But it was a Parliament of a new kind, for he summoned not merely the great lords but also men who were to speak and act for the people. From each county in England, and’ from each city, two men were chosen to come to Parliament as repre sentatives of the "commons," or persons who were not barons or bishops. To gain a voice in Parliament meant as much for the people of England as to gain Magna Carta itself. No wonder Earl Simon is counted among the great men of English history. (1265 A.D.)

But it was not yet certain that Parliament would remain as Simon had arranged it. King Henry was indeed too weak to struggle with the great earl, but his son, Prince Edward, was a brave soldier and a good general. When the war between the king and the barons began again, Prince Edward led the royal army with great skill. Many of de Montfort’s men deserted him, and be was finally forced to give battle to the prince when certain to be beaten. Fighting to the last, "in a crashing forest of the foe," the brave old earl fell, and all his bravest friends fell around him.

But though Simon de Montfort died his work lived. When Prince Edward became King Edward I he proved as good a ruler as he was soldier. Instead of driving the "commons" from Parliament, he saw that it was best to keep them there. He was wise enough to feel that he could rule England more easily with the approval of the people than against their wishes.

So it came about that Parliament had two "houses," —the House of Lords, where the nobles sat, and the House of Commons, where met the representatives of the people. For a law to be passed both houses had to agree. Though many hard struggles still lay before England, she was happy indeed, compared with other nations, to have received so good a form of government.


The Leading Facts. 1. England was almost ruined by the Danes. 2. Alfred the Great defeated them and saved his country. 3. He aiso encouraged learning and the establishment of schools. 4. Later England was conquered by the Normans, led by William the Conqueror. 5. Many Normans came to live in England and brought new ideas. 6. The Norman nobles were fierce fighters and often would not obey the king. 7. Henry II restored order. 8. He established better courts and methods of trial. 9. King John was a tyrant and oppressed his people. 10. He was forced to sign Magna Carta. 11. Simon de Montfort and King Edward I established the House of Commons. 22. Thus the English people had a share in their own government.

Study Questions. 1. What was there about the position of England which caused the Northnien to go there? 2. Tell about the youth of Alfred the Great. 3. Why did the English fight bravely under his leadership? 4. Why was it a bold thing to try to fight the Danes on the sea? 5. Make a list of the ways in which Alfred tried to benefit England. 6. How did he resemble George Washington? 7. Name the conquests of England, and give at least one result of each. 8. Who were the Normans? 9. Why did they invade England? io. How did William the Conqueror show that he was a good general? 11. How did the Normans improve England? 12. What was their chief fault? 23. What kind of man was King William the Conqueror? 14. Why did England regret his death? 15. In what way was Henry II, like William, and how was he different? 16. Why does it make_a great difference in any country how trials are carried on? 17. Tell abqut the "ordeals." 18. Explain how Henry improved matters. 19. Why did Archbisho Becket oppose the king? 20. Tell the story of his death. r. Make a list of tyrannical acts of King John. 22. Tell the story of Magna Carta as if you had been one of the barons. 23. What differences does the signing of Magna Carta make to Americans? 24. Explain how Parliament grew in such a way as to show the different forms it took. ‘25. Why were Englishmen not satisfied with King Henry III? 26. Who was Earl Simon de Montfort? 27. Tell what he did for England. 28. Why did Edward I keep the House of Commons? 29. What do we Americans call our Parliament?

Suggested Readings. Mowry, First Steps in the History of England, 38-48, 49-70, 82-97; Tappan, England’s Story, 24 Blaisdell, Stories from English History, 27-77; Dickens, A Child’s History of England (Scribners, N.Y., 1910), 18-24, 50 63, 89-110, 122-168; Guerber, The Story of the English, 42-53, 73-84, 117-128; Church, Stories from English History, 114-142, 146-165, 187-202; Yonge, Young Folks’ History of England. Also: Tappan, In the Days of Alfred the Great and In the Days of William the Conqueror.

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© 2001 by Lynn Waterman