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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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Unit 2

Political Developments

Learning Outcomes

After the successful completion of this unit, the learner will be:

  • introduced to the role of the Church in the Middle Ages, particularly in medieval England.
  • aware of the background of drafting the Magna Carta.
  • able to identify the features of the Magna Carta and its impact on British history.


The church was an important institution in England which had an all-pervasive grasp over the English psyche. The relationship between the church and state became strained due to various political developments in the medieval period. The Magna Carta, or “Great Charter,” was arguably the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today in the English- speaking world. In 1215, after King John of England violated a number of ancient laws and customs by which England had been governed, his subjects forced him to sign the Magna Carta, which enumerates what later came to be thought of as human rights. Among them was the right of the church to be free from governmental interference, the rights of all free citizens to own and inherit property and to be protected from excessive taxes. In this unit, we learn about the various developments that led to the signing of the Magna Carta and its impact on the history of civil liberties in Europe.

Church, Middle Ages, King, Barons, Magna Carta, Rights

As we know the Church in the Middle Ages had huge power over people’s lives and monarchs as well. The Pope claimed authority over all kings and bishops. If a cleric was accused of a crime, he was not tried at the King’s court. Instead, he was tried in a Church court where the punishments were not so strict. The church stood outside royal jurisdiction and defied the king in many ways. This situation created a long-lasting quarrel between the church and the state in medieval England, especially during the time of Henry II (Reign from 1154 to 1189).
Henry II was not ready to accept the decrees of the Church. Henry II strongly believed that the church and clergy should be subject to the same standards of law and justice as everyone else. In 1164, he introduced the Constitutions of Clarendon, a code of 16 rules designed to increase the King’s influence over the bishops and the Church Courts. Henry demanded that, if the Church courts found a cleric guilty, they had to hand him over to the King’s court to be punished properly. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury (The Archbishop of Canterbury was the head of the church in England), refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon. This provoked Henry II, and he summoned a Great Council at Northampton in 1164 to discuss the matter. The Council found Becket had committed a great crime against the state and demanded to punish him for treason. Hearing this news, Thomas Becket escaped to France. But the Pope interfered in the issue and threatened to excommunicate Henry. Finally, in 1170, Becket was allowed to return back to England. This event created many setbacks to the power and prestige of Henry II. Back in England, Becket excommunicated three bishops who supported Henry. On hearing of the ex-communications, Henry shouted “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” He ordered the arrest of Thomas Becket. Henry’s soldiers rushed to Canterbury and murdered Becket at the altar of the Cathedral on 29 December 1170.
The murder forever eclipsed the legacy of Henry II. He was forced to make great shows of repentance and sorrow for the murder of the archbishop. His plan for restricting the jurisdiction of the Church court was abandoned. Thomas Becket was made a saint by the Pope and pilgrims flocked from all over England and Europe to pray at his tomb. In short, during the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church played a central role in the lives of people and monarchs in England. More than just a religious institution, the church acquired great political and economic power.
2.2.1 Church Mechanism
Let us explore the influence of the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Initially, the Romans persecuted Christians for their beliefs. But it continued to spread. In 313 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine issued a decree that allowed Christians to practise their religion freely. In 395 CE, Christianity became the recognized religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity became so widespread during the Middle Ages that historians sometimes call this period the “Age of Faith”. The church was the centre of medieval life in Western Europe. Almost every village and the town had a church building. Larger towns and cities had a cathedral. Church bells rang out the hours, called people to worship, and warned of danger. The church building was the centre of community activity. Religious services were held several times a day. Town meetings, plays, and concerts were also held in churches. Merchants had shops around the square in front of the church. Farmers sold their products in the square. Markets, festivals, and fairs were all held in the shadow of the church’s spires (towers).
During the Middle Ages, the church acquired great economic power. By the year 1050, the church was the largest landholder in Europe. Some land came in the form of gifts from monarchs and wealthy lords. The medieval church added to its wealth by collecting a tax called tithe. Each person was expected to give one-tenth of his money, produce, or labour to help support the church. The church also came to wield great political power. The increasing influence of the church brought it into conflict with many English monarchs. The conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has already been discussed.
2.2.2 King John and Magna Carta (1215)
John was the king of England from 1199 until he died in 1216. During his own time, King John’s reputation lowered due to his misrule. England lost many territories in a war with France, and he failed to reconquer those territories. He demanded heavy and unnecessary taxes from his subjects to meet his luxurious life and unnecessary wars. John was not on good terms with the barons of his realm. He curtailed many privileges enjoyed by the barons. The barons lamented that King John disregarded their traditional privileges. He also quarrelled with Pope Innocent III over an Episcopal appointment. John refused to accept Pope Innocent’s nominee for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1208. But Pope Innocent excommunicated the king (1209), declared the throne vacant, and invited the French to invade England. John finally recognised Pope Innocent as his superior in 1213. All these events show that John was a very unpopular ruler. The Church and barons wanted John to be removed from power or to put strict control on him. This was the background of the signing of a great charter of liberties known as the Magna Carta by King John in 1215. John signed Magna Carta after many quarrels with barons and the Church.
2.2.3 Magna Carta
Magna Carta is a Charter of Rights signed by King John at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15th June 1215. The charter was drafted at the persuasion of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton and some discontent barons of England. It contains 63 clauses (promises) about what the king could and couldn’t do and important clauses designed to bring about reforms in judicial and local administration. It also set up a Council of barons to make sure John kept his promises. It was originally written in Latin. Magna Carta promised to grant the following demands of the church and feudal barons: protection of the rights of the English Church and that there shall be no royal interference; protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment; access to quick justice and limitations on feudal payments to the King; assurance that no freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned without a proper trial by a jury of peers.
The following clauses of the Magna Carta had profound importance in the history of the British Constitution:
Clause 1:-“…..the English church shall be free and shall have her rights entirely, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed…..”
Clause 12:- No scutage (a tax paid in lieu of military service) shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom…..”
Clause 39:- No freeman shall be imprisoned or exiled or in any way destroyed nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
Clause 40:- To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.
Clause 54:- No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman for the death of any other than her husband. (This clause certainly can be looked upon as a reactionary clause against women as it prevented women from filing petitions except in the case of the death of their husbands.
2.2.4 Impact of Magna Carta
Historians generally consider Magna Carta as the Keystone of English liberties. The power of the king had been permanently restricted, and no king of England was ever again able to rule with unrestricted or absolute power. Magna Carta established the principle that no one, including the king or lawmaker, is above the law. Within half a century, England had a permanent parliament to represent the wishes of the barons to the king. The dominance of the English church over monarchs has also been asserted after the signing of the Magna Carta.
Throughout English history, provisions of the Magna Carta were quoted by both reformers and rebels to achieve their demands from autocratic monarchs. In the 17th century, the lawyer Edward Coke used Magna Carta to oppose Charles I’s demand for the tax to pay for his foreign wars. Coke claimed that Magna Carta guaranteed specific freedoms to Englishmen, including no taxation without the consent of parliament and no imprisonment without trial. In the 18th and 19th centuries, British historians, especially followers of the Whig party, saw Magna Carta as the basis of English democracy.
One of the major drawbacks of the Magna Carta was it assured fundamental rights only to the freemen and nobles of the kingdom while continuing to negate the rights of the majority of people who were peasants. In other words, it was largely a feudal agreement to protect the prestige and privileges of the nobles and the barons. Thus in 1904, the lawyer and writer Edward Jenks wrote an iconoclastic essay titled ‘The Myth of Magna Carta’. In it, he argued that “Magna Carta’s reputation as a guarantee of civil liberties and human rights is misleading and even false”. Historians nowadays postulate that Magna Carta was just a negotiation between King John and the barons over feudal rights and the justice system, not a statement of human rights. Despite all its drawbacks, the Magna Carta has been considered the most renowned constitutional document in British history.

  •  Historians referred to the Middle Ages as the “Age of Faith” as the Church became the centre of medieval life in Western Europe.
  • The Church acquired great economic and political power in the Middle Ages.
  • King John had a bitter relationship with the Church and Barons of his realm.
  • Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215.
  • Magna Carta is a Charter of Rights and is considered to be the keystone of English liberties.
  • Magna Carta contains clauses regarding what the king could and couldn’t do and important clauses designed to bring about reforms in judicial and local administration.
  •  Important clauses of the Magna Carta are Clause 1, 12, 39, 40, and 54.
  • The power of the king was permanently restricted after Magna Carta. f
  • History shows that the Magna Carta was quoted by both reformers and
    rebels to achieve their demands from the autocratic monarchs.
  •  The major drawback of the Magna Carta is that it negated the fundamental rights of peasants, who comprised the majority of the population, and gave importance to nobles and feudal lords only.
  •  The Magna Carta is considered the most renowned constitutional document in British history despite its drawbacks.

Objective Type Questions

1. When did the Roman Emperor issue the decree to practise Christianity freely? 2. Give the other name of the Middle Ages coined by historians.
3. When were the ‘Constitutions of Clarendon’ introduced?
4. Name the tax imposed by the Church in the Medieval period.
5. Name the Archbishop who had a conflict with King Henry II.
6. Which King of Britain signed the Magna Carta?
7. When was the Magna Carta signed?
8. In which year did Christianity become the recognized religion of the Roman Empire?
9. What is Magna Carta?
10. How many clauses are included in Magna Carta?
11. Who wrote ‘The Myth of Magna Carta’?
12. Name some of the important clauses of the Magna Carta.

Answers to Objective Type Questions

1. 313 CE
2. 1164 CE
3. Age of Faith
4. Tithe
5. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury 6. King John
7. June 15, 1215
8. 395 CE
9. Charter of Rights
10. 63 clauses
11. Edward Jenks
12. Clause 1, 12, 39, 40, 54


1. The Church was the centre of medieval life in Western Europe. Explain the state- ment.
2. List out the major Charter of Rights signed across the world and compare them. 3. Evaluate the relationship between religious institutions and the State in the pres-
ent world.
4. Write a brief note on the relation of King John with the Church and barons of his realm.
5. Elucidate the important clauses of the Magna Carta.
6. Explain the impacts of the Magna Carta using examples.

Suggested Readings

1. Carter, E.H. Mears,, A History of Britain, Stacey International, 2012.
2. Amt, Emilie. (Ed.), Medieval England, 1000-1500: A Reader, University of To- ronto Press, 2000.
3. Brown, Eric. English History, A Concise Overview of the History of England from Start to End, Guy Saloniki, 2019.
4. Round, J.H. Feudal England, Outlook Verlag, 2018.
5. Morgan, Kenneth O (Ed). The Oxford History of Britain, OUP Oxford, 2010.