Derek Taylor, author of a recently published book on Magna Carta gave us a very interesting and brilliantly presented review of “bad” King John, with particular reference to one of our local Marcher families of that period, the de Briouze family, rivals at that time with the Mortimers for power and influence in the Borders.
What is the connection between Magna Carta and the Marches?
Derek Taylor disabused our clichéd ideas about both King John and the famous charter in his well-researched talk. The traditional view of King John is that he was very definitely bad on five counts:
- that he was a traitor to his father and brother
- irreligious, in that he stole lands from the church
- violent, shown in murder of his nephew
- a lazy coward, losing English territory in France
- he oppressed his subjects and exercised his will over their wives and daughters.
In John’s defence, Derek pointed out that:
- disloyalty was not unusual in that family
- there is not much evidence for his lack of faith; the Pope became his staunchest ally
- Arthur, his nephew, was no innocent but aimed to overthrow John
- he was unlucky in losing his lands, having a brilliant opponent in the French king
- he was no sexual predator but did impose crippling taxes. His conflict with the barons was inherited from the time of Stephen, leaving him with baronial power, which he found inhibiting.
He tried everything including bribery and intimidation to recover power from the barons. In the end it seems that he was driven by fear and became very unpredictable. This aspect of his nature is what the barons most loathed.
Local interest was the tale of the Marcher de Briouze family, barons in the Brecon area, which ultimately led to Magna Carta. William de Briouze was one of John’s favourites, and indeed given extra lands by him, but suspicions entered John’s mind and he was determined to rein him in. John ordered that their children be taken hostage to ensure the baron’s good behaviour. In an early example of feminine independence, outspoken Matilda de Briouze refused to let her children be taken by one who had ‘killed his own nephew.’
The king was furious, and after fleeing to Ireland and to Scotland with her husband Matilda was arrested and imprisoned in Corfe Castle where she died, probably of starvation or dehydration. William also died the same year, having fled to various parts of the kingdom. This helped provoke the baronial rebellion, which led to Magna Carta, itself something of a peace treaty. In it the king agreed to obey the law, and arbitrary punishment of barons was forbidden, but it seems that no one had much expectation of the treaty lasting, or paid great attention to It. After John’s death, it was reissued many times with the expressions about justice being re-interpreted more widely until it was built into the constitutions of the New World as ‘no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without the due process of law’. Many countries, including Germany and Japan, have adopted it.
A fascinating example of a much-lauded law, which history shows to have developed in ways never envisaged at the start.
For more information on Derek Taylor, and his book, go to his website shown below.
Magna Carta in 20 Places’
is published by
The History Press