This new agreement was known as "Magna Carta", the Great Charter, and was an important symbol of political freedom. The king promised all "freemen" protection from his officers, and the right to a fair and legal trial. At the time perhaps less than one quarter of the English were "freemen". Most were not free, and were serfs or little better. Hundreds of years later, Magna Carta was used by Parliament to protect itself from a powerful king. In fact Magna Carta gave no real freedom to the majority of people in England. The nobles who wrote it and forced King John to sign it had no such thing in mind. They had one main aim: to make sure John did not go beyond his rights as feudal lord.
Magna Carta marks a clear stage in the collapse of English feudalism. Feudal society was based on links between lord and vassal. At Runnymede the nobles were not acting as vassals but as a class. They established a committee of twenty-four lords to make sure John kept his promises. That was not a "feudal" thing to do. In addition, the nobles were acting in co-operation with the merchant class of towns.
The nobles did not allow John's successors to forget this charter and its promises. Every king recognised Magna Carta, until the Middle Ages ended in disorder and a new kind of monarchy came into being in the sixteenth century.
There were other small signs that feudalism was changing. When the king went to war he had the right to forty days' fighting service from each of his lords. But forty days were not long enough for fighting a war in France. The nobles refused to fight for longer, so the king was forced to pay soldiers to fight for him. (They were called "paid fighters". At the same time many lords preferred their vassals to pay them in money rather than in services. Vassals were gradually beginning to change into tenants. Feudalism, the use of land in return for service, was beginning to weaken. But it took another three hundred years before it disappeared completely.
Lecture Five.The power of the kings of England
Church and state. The beginnings of Parliament. Dealing with the Celts.
Church and state
John's reign also marked the end of the long struggle between Church and state in England. This had begun in 1066 when the pope claimed that William had promised to accept him as his feudal lord. William refused to accept this claim. He had created Norman bishops and given them land on condition that they paid homage to him. As a result it was not clear whether the bishops should obey the Church or the king. Those kings and popes who wished to avoid conflict left the matter alone. But some kings and popes wanted to increase their authority. In such circumstances trouble could not be avoided.
The struggle was for both power and money. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Church wanted the kings of Europe to accept its authority over both spiritual and earthly affairs, and argued that even kings were answerable to God. Kings, on the other hand, chose as bishops men who would re loyal to them.
The first serious quarrel was between William Rufus and Anselm, the man he had made Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm, with several other bishops, rearing the king, had escaped from England. After William's death Anselm refused to do homage to William's successor, Henry I. Henry, meanwhile, had created several new bishops but they had no spiritual authority without the blessing of the archbishop. This left the king in a difficult position. It took seven years to settle the disagreement. Finally the king agreed that only the Church could create bishops. But in return the Church agreed that bishops would pay homage to the king for the lands owned by their bishoprics. In practice the wishes of the king in the appointment of bishops remained important. But after Anselm's death Henry managed to delay the appointment of a new archbishop for five years while he benefited from the wealth of Canterbury. The struggle between Church and state continued.
The crisis came when Henry IIís friend Thomas Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry hoped that Thomas would help him bring the Church more under his control. At first Becket refused, and then he gave in. Later he changed his mind again and ran away to France, and it seemed as if Henry had won. But in 1170 Becket returned to England determined to resist the king. Henry was very angry, and four knights who heard him speak out went to Canterbury to murder Becket. They killed him in the holiest place in the cathedral, on the altar steps.
All Christian Europe was shocked, and Thomas Becket became a saint of the Church. For hundreds of years afterwards people not only from England but also from Europe travelled to Canterbury to pray at Becket's grave. Henry was forced to ask the pope's forgiveness. He also allowed himself to be whipped by monks. The pope used the event to take back some of the Church's privileges. But Henry II could have lost much more than he did. Luckily for Henry, the nobles were also involved in the argument, and Henry had the nobles on his side. Usually the Church preferred to support the king against the nobles, but expected to be rewarded for its support. King John's mistake forty years later was to upset both Church and nobles at the same time.