Despite the modern perception that English kings had absolute power, the strength of King John’s power in 1215 depended upon the loyalty of a noble class.
This system of nobles had its roots in 1066, when Norman King William ‘the Conqueror’ defeated Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Many of the Anglo-Saxon nobles had been killed in battle, and William took land from most of the rest.
William gave around 1,400 of his trusted allies both lands and titles under the condition that they administered their land, suppressed dissent against the crown, raised taxes to pay him rents, and built armies that would be made available to the Crown when necessary. William’s grant of Barony was called servitum debitum, or service owed.
These ‘tenants-in-chief’ were given large tracts of land, with towns and villages and resources to manage. Under William, as a security measure, noble land holdings were also divided, separated by great distances, often sectioned in different counties thus requiring that nobles had to travel between them. Therefore, Barons gave ‘fiefs’ – sections of land – to landed knights, or hiring ‘stipendiary knights’ to protect and manage their lands. Some nobles were only given titles, without land, as rewards for their service and loyalty.
William also held so-called King’s Councils. Unlike today’s elected Parliaments, these meetings were called at the King’s whim so that he could receive strategic advice from his Barons, and raise funds for military operations. As personalities changed, the Crown’s relationship with the nobility frayed, with any Baron’s individual influence with the King fluctuating. Some remained allies while some became critical.
By 1213, King John’s relationship with the nobility was strained: a group of nobles had begun discussing reforms with King John in that year, using Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton as intermediary. King John’s 1214 military loss at the Battle of Bouvines in France worsened their grievances, as did John’s demand for a scutage tax, which were payments demanded from nobles in lieu of their failure to provide knights to John’s army. In 1215, John then refused to meet the nobles’ demands, leading a number of Barons to renounce feudal ties to the King, and seize London.
The existing feudal system was under severe strain by the time that King John met the rebel Barons at Runnymede in June 1215 to settle this matter. Magna Carta demonstrated that the English monarchy, although powerful, required at least tacit support and acquiescence from the existing English nobility.
Information Research, Writing and Investigative Analysis