Ed West’s breezy and enjoyable mini-book 1215 and All That gives a quick tour of the events leading up to the Magna Carta and some of its consequences in English and world history. I knew the period slightly from David Crowther’s excellent History of England podcast, but West puts the characters and their actions into sharp focus: licentious Henry II and his wife/military adversary Eleanor of Acquataine, charismatic and perennially absent Richard I and, most of all, the repellent, alcoholic serial rapist John. Lots of (or maybe all) medieval kings are a tough sell by the standards of our own time, but John distinguished himself by being despised by almost everyone who knew him (except maybe his father, who treated him as a favorite, with civil war as one of the consequences.)
His adversaries at Runnymede, the barons, were no great shakes either; the sheriffs the kings of John’s era began placing throughout England were at times as venal and corrupt as in the Robin Hood stories, but at other times they restrained the worst raping-and-pillaging impulses of local feudal lords and helped create some of the idea of “the King’s Justice” that made England so different from most of the world for so long.
West doesn’t shy away from portraying the Magna Carta itself as pretty darn important, if maybe not quite as earth-shattering as earlier generations of school textbooks and Whig historians wanted to portray it, who were eager to date the steady march towards trial by jury and parliamentary democracy as beginning in earnest from June 15, 1215. Nonetheless, the document, as West notes, was vital for how later generations of parliamentarians and kings and jurists thought of it– as establishing a pattern of limited government and protected rights– as well as in the rights it itself claimed to secure, such as freedom from illegal imprisonment.
The meta-point I would make is this: the good that came of King John’s reign was in spite of or even because of his defects as human and leader, and not in any way because the barons who rebelled against him were clearly much better. Countervailing forces, balanced powers and competing institutions are much more likely to protect our lives and persons than nobility in any one institution or wisdom in any great person, now as then.