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Magna Carta and the First Barons War

Magna Carta is an important document that has become a symbol of political rights and freedoms across the world. Originally known as ‘the Great Charter’, it is considered the foundation of the British constitution.

However, Magna Carta originated as a solution to a political crisis. King John issued the document as a peace treaty with rebelling barons. Several important events that led to the creation of Magna Carta took place in Northamptonshire.

John was a hugely unpopular King. To fund a long war with France, he imposed high taxes and took barons’ land for their debts. He also clashed with the Pope over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The disagreement escalated to John seizing Church property and the Pope imposing religious penalties before To officially exclude someone from the Catholic Church.excommunicating John from the Church.

John reconciled with the Pope and the Church in 1213. However, the barons were still unhappy with the King. Rebel barons began to complain and demand changes to his rule.

In January, 1215, John met the barons in London and asked for more time to consider their demands. He agreed to meet them in Northampton at Easter to give them his response. However, John did not consider their demands, but began to raise an army and secured protection from the Pope.

Seeing John’s actions, the barons armed themselves and marched from Stamford to Northampton in April.  When the King was not there, they continued on to Brackley and drew up a list of demands in a local manor. This list of demands became the basis of Magna Carta. The barons sent an ultimatum to the King: submit to the demands or face civil war.

According to Roger of Wendover, a writer at the time, when the King received the message, he exclaimed:


Why do these barons not ask for my kingdom at once? Their demands are idle dreams, without a shadow of reason.

John rejected them outright.

When the barons heard the King’s response, they carried out their threat. On 5 May 1215 at Brackley, the barons renounced their oaths of allegiance to John and declared civil war. In the first battle of the Barons War, the rebels attacked Northampton Castle. Having not brought siege equipment, they failed and gave up after two weeks. But they had better luck further south.

The barons captured London later in May, forcing the King to negotiate. John granted Magna Carta at Runnymede near Windsor as a peace treaty with the barons. The document was based on the barons’ demands made at Brackley and most of its 63 clauses related to specific grievances. The King’s clerks made copies of Magna Carta to distribute, but only four survive.



The peace settlement did not last long however. King John had the Pope annul Magna Carta immediately afterwards, so the barons refused to surrender London. The civil war continued and even escalated as the barons invited the French Prince to invade England and take the English throne. John died suddenly of dysentery in October 1216 and the war ended the following year after King Henry III was crowned. Henry III issued a new Magna Carta and regained the support of many barons.

To see - A small door is the only part of Northampton Castle that survives. It is near the train station.
To visit - King John hunted at Rockingham Castle. His treasure chest is on display in the Great Hall. The castle also claims that John's crown jewels may have been buried in the grounds!
Image acknowledgements:

Magna Carta, 1225 © Public domain, image courtesy of the British Library

Northampton Castle ruins in the 19th century © Northamptonshire Archives Service

Seal from Magna Carta, 1225 © Public domain, image courtesy of the British Library

King John ratifying the Magna Carta © the Trustees of the British Museum, licenced under a Creative Commons Licence

Northampton Castle postern gate © Public domain, licenced under the GNU Free Documentation License

Rockingham Castle © Rockingham Castle Estate

Medieval knight © Northamptonshire Archives Service