Magna Carta and Church History

I am sure each of us, as we trudged through the educational systems of our respective countries, heard about the Magna Carta; its significance, its background and the political turmoil amidst which it was spawned. A Google search will give you a quick rundown on the historical wherewithal of this controversial and deeply significant document.

So why would we look at Magna Carta as we trace our spiritual lineage? Because the story of Magna Carta would be incomplete without understanding its place in the greater story of the Protestant Reformation and that is something Google can offer very little insight on.

Runnymede, UK

We begin a little over a century before the birth of John Wycliffe in the year 1205 with King John sitting upon the throne of England. John was, at times, quite capable of courage and conviction when the occasion called for it but by and large, he was weak-willed and known to be violent and even cruel. The man who sat upon the throne of the Papacy was Innocent III, the same Innocent we encountered in the story of the Albigensian massacre.

Magna Carta

What John lacked in grit and force of character, Innocent III more than made up for and added to that he was probably more cruel and violent than John. 

The face-off between these two power brokers took place over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. King John’s nominee was dismissed by the Pope who put forward his own nominee, thus negating the authority of the king of England to appoint a successor and seeking to install the power of Rome as absolute in matters pertaining to the leadership of the church.

In an age where religious authority was a more formidable force than that of the crown itself, this move was a harbinger of what was to come. If the Pope felt that he had the authority to appoint the most powerful ecclesiastical position in England then what could stand in the way of him appointing the successor to the throne itself? King John saw the inevitable fallout that would ensue as a result of him acquiescing to the Pope’s appointment and he withstood the authority of the Pope for a time. The problem was, however, that in a duel between England’s weakest monarch and the Papacy’s strongest pontiff the odds were not stacked in favor of England.

 

Magna Carta

John eventually bowed to the pressure of Rome, allowing Innocent to appoint the man of his choosing to the seat of Canterbury and, as if that were not enough, also agreeing to pay a Papal tax of 1000 marks to the Papal See. The transaction took place on the 15th of May 1213 and to seal the deal John paid homage to the Papal Legate, Pandulf, by bowing down and laying his crown at his feet. Pandulf, in an attempt to display the power of Rome over the Monarchy of England, is said to have kicked the crown about like a worthless bauble. England was humiliated.

Stunned by the King’s submission to Rome, the Barons of England came together and vowed to protect the ancient liberties of England or to die trying.  

Appearing before King John at Oxford in April of 1215 they presented him with a charter detailing their rights and liberties which were to be protected by the crown. They demanded that John sign it and after some protest, he signed the document at Runnymede. The charter in effect communicated to the Pope that England was taking back the kingdom that had been laid at his feet and was revoking its vow to serve the Pope. 

Writing about the Magna Carta the prominent historian Wylie states “Magna Carta was constitutional liberty standing up before the face of Papal absolutism and throwing down the gage of battle to it”

The first clause of the Magna Carta states “the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired” This would become the focal point of John Wycliffe’s early disagreements with Rome, an issue that would rumble on for over a century.

The mechanism that triggered the drawing up of the Magna Carta was a desire to guard the principles of civil and religious liberty, principles that were trampled upon by the authority of Rome. Today this truth is held as self-evident, that the powers of church and state be separated, thus ensuring freedom of conscience for all. It is our privilege to use the opportunities afforded by this separation to spread the gospel now because the tide may turn at any time.

Further Reading

  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism