1215: The Year of Magna Carta

Today it is my turn on the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop: Momentous Events. Given my recent book is Ladies of Magna Carta, it only seems right that the momentous event I talk about should be the birth of Magna Carta itself.

King John

1214 ended badly for King John. Attempts to appease his continental enemies had not had the desired results and he was at war in France. As a consequence, John sought a reconciliation with the Lusignans, agreeing to grant them Saintes and Oléron and to marry his daughter Joan to Hugh X de Lusignan, the son of Hugh IX de Lusignan, who had been betrothed to John’s wife, Isabelle d’Angoulême, in return for their support. A similar peace offering, of the earldom of Richmond, to Pierre, Duke of Brittany, was less well received and the duke remained aloof. John’s campaign was successful at first, with him entering Angers unopposed before he laid siege to Roche-au-Moine. However, he was forced to retreat on 2 July, with the approach of the army of Prince Louis of France and the refusal of the Poitevins to fight by his side.

Although he was able to keep his own army intact, John’s fate was sealed on 27 July when his half-brother William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, and John’s German and Flemish allies faced King Philip II of France at the battle of Bouvines. They were decisively defeated. Otto IV managed to escape, but William Longespée was captured and taken to Paris, along with the counts of Flanders and Boulogne. With the threat in the north neutralised, Philip was now able to join his army to that of his son, Prince Louis, and challenge John in the south. John had no choice but to seek peace and a 5-year truce was agreed on 13 October, with Ralph of Coggeshall reporting rumours that it had cost John 60,000 marks.1

At home, John’s policy of reform of the sheriffs and forest officials in 1212–1213 had resulted in a significant reduction in royal revenue, and the military campaign had drained John’s treasury further. He was no longer a wealthy king. In October 1214 John returned to England; the defeat by the French at the Battle of Bouvines had ended the king’s hopes of regaining the lost Angevin empire. Baronial opposition to John now gathered pace. The refusal to pay scutage of 3 marks on the knights’ fee demonstrating a coordinated effort by the magnates, rather than the individual disobedience that had been seen earlier in the reign.

Lincoln Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta

The barons’ objections to John were almost beyond number. He had failed to face the French and had lost not only his family’s Continental possessions, but also those of his barons. Few had forgotten his treachery against his brother in trying to take the throne whilst Richard was on crusade. Added to these catastrophes was the character and personality of John himself. By nature, John was paranoid, secretive and distrustful. His cruelty was widely known. He stood accused of killing his nephew, Arthur, a rival claimant to the English throne; he had hanged twenty-eight Welsh hostages (sons of rebel chieftains); and he had hounded William de Braose and his family all the way to Ireland and back. De Braose’s wife and son died in one of John’s prisons, probably from starvation.

The History of William Marshal, a biography of the great knight and statesman, claimed that John treated his prisoners harshly and with such indignity that it was a disgrace to all involved.2 His barons even complained that he forced himself on their wives and daughters. With such military losses, accusations of murder and seemingly acute character flaws stacked against him, it is no wonder England’s king faced opposition by many of the most powerful in his realm.

In January 1215 John arranged to meet with his challengers in London to hear their demands, and it was agreed that they would reconvene at Northampton on 26 April to hear the king’s response. The disaffected barons demanded reform and the confirmation of the coronation charter of King Henry I, in which the king promised;

Pope Innocent III

‘Know that by the mercy of God and by the common counsel of the barons of England I have been crowned king of this realm. And because the kingdom has been oppressed by unjust exactions, being moved by reverence towards God and by the love I bear you all, I make free the Church of God … I abolish all the evil customs by which the kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed.’ 3

Although many of the clauses of this charter, also referred to as the Charter of Liberties, were now outdated, several still resonated with the barons, including that a baron’s widow could not be married without her consent, that an heiress could not be married without the consent of her relatives and that, on the death of a baron, his heir would only pay a relief that was ‘just and lawful.’4

Whilst John was ruminating on these demands, both sides were preparing for war. John borrowed from the Templars to pay his mercenaries and on 4 March he took the cross. This latter move was seen as being highly cynical and no one seems to have believed that John would actually go on crusade. His purpose for doing so was political: a crusader’s lands and properties were protected by the church and this action firmly identified the king’s opponents as the ‘bad guys’.

John failed to appear at Northampton in April. He did, however, send messages to the rebels. According to the Barnwell annalist the king ‘tried to win them back through many emissaries, and there was much discussion amongst them, the archbishop, bishops and other barons acting as intermediaries, the king himself staying at Oxford.’5 On 5 May the rebels formally renounced their fealty. John retained the support of some magnates, such as William Marshal and William de Warenne, but the majority were now standing against him. As was London, which opened its gates to the rebels on 17 May, despite John’s granting the city the right to elect its mayor only eight days before. In the Welsh Marches the Braose family had allied with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and had taken Shrewsbury.

The rebels were ready to fight. After occupying London, they made one final attempt to prevent war, presenting the king with a list of their demands. John had no choice but to make concessions and on 10 June agreed to further discussions of the rebels’ terms. Following these negotiations, a long, detailed document was produced, dealing with the particular grievances of the time and with injustices in general. It touched on the whole system of royal government. And it was granted to ‘all free men of the realm and their heirs forever.’6

19th century recreation of the moment Magna Carta is sealed

Of its sixty-three clauses some terms were asking for immediate remedies, such as the removal of corrupt administrators and the sending home of foreign mercenaries. A clause stating that fighting outside of the kingdom could not be imposed by the king was a reaction to John’s recent attempts to force his English barons to help him recover his Continental domains. Others had long-term aims. The document sought to guarantee the privileges of the church and the City of London. Restrictions were placed on the powers of regional officials, such as sheriffs, to prevent abuses. The royal court was fixed at Westminster, for justice to be obtainable by all, and royal judges were to visit each county regularly. Taxes could no longer be levied without the consent of the church and the barons.

Clauses included the fixing of inheritance charges and the protection from exploitation for under-age heirs; the king was to take only what was reasonable from an estate (although ‘reasonable’ remained undefined). From henceforth a widow was to be free to choose whether or not to remarry and her marriage portion (dowry) would be made available to her immediately on her husband’s death. Another clause sought to prevent the seizure of land from Jews and the king’s debtors. Magna Carta even went so far as to regulate weights and measures. It also reduced the size of the king’s forests and limited the powers of forest justices.

Although most of the sixty-three clauses of Magna Carta are now defunct, three still remain as major tenets of British law, including ‘to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.’ That no person would be imprisoned, outlawed or deprived of his lands except by judgement of his peers and the law of the land has remained the cornerstone of the English legal system ever since.


Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, Berkshire, on 15 June 1215. John ordered that the charter be circulated around the towns and villages, throughout the realm; only 4 original copies survive today, 2 at the British Library and 1 each at Lincoln and Salisbury. As a peace agreement between the king and his rebellious barons, however, it failed miserably. By July, John was appealing to the pope for help. Pope Innocent III’s response arrived in England in September. The treaty was declared null and void; according to Innocent, Magna Carta was:

‘not only shameful and base but also illegal and unjust. We refuse to overlook such shameless presumption which dishonours the Apostolic See, injures the king’s right, shames the English nation, and endangers the crusade. Since the whole crusade would be undermined if concessions of this sort were extorted from a great prince who had taken the cross, we, on behalf of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and by the authority of Saints Peter and Paul His apostles, utterly reject and condemn this settlement. Under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe and the barons and their associates should not insist on it being observed. The charter with all its undertakings and guarantees we declare to be null and void of all validity for ever.’7

The letter was accompanied by more papal letters, excommunicating rebels, including nine barons and the Londoners. However, by the time the letters arrived in England, the dispute had already erupted into the Barons’ War. John laid siege to Rochester Castle with his mercenaries and the castle surrendered on 30 November, after a seven-week siege. Deciding they could no longer deal with John’s perfidy, the rebel barons had invited the King of France, Philip II Augustus, to claim the throne.

Philip’s son and heir, the future Louis VIII, accepted the offer. He sent an advanced guard, which arrived in December of 1215. Louis himself would arrive in the spring of 1216. He landed on the south coast and marched for London, where he was proclaimed King of England on 2 June 1216, just 13 days before the 1st anniversary of Magna Carta…


For a study into the influence of women on the clauses and creation of Magna Carta, and its impact on the lives of women, my book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  is out now!


1 John Gillingham, John (1167–1216), Oxforddnb.com; 2 L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchale quoted in John Gillingham, John (1167–1216), Oxforddnb.com; 3 Coronation Charter of Henry I in bl.uk; 4 Select Charters quoted in Marc Morris, King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; 5 The Barnwell annalist quoted in Elizabeth Hallam (editor), The Plantagenet Chronicles; 6 Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; 7 Letter from Pope Innocent III, quoted in Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta


Courtesy of Wikipedia. Except: Magna Carta ©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Runnymede ©2020 Jayne Smith

Further reading:

Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; John Gillingham, John (1167–1216), Oxforddnb.com; Marc Morris, King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta


My Books

Out Now!

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.


You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Unfortunate Wives of Philip II of France

Coronation of Philip II Augustus

Philip II Augustus had acceded to the throne of France in 1180, at the tender age of fifteen. He married his first wife, Isabella of Hainault the same year; she was only ten-years-old. Isabella was the daughter of Baldwin V, count of Hainault, and Margaret I, countess of Flanders. At just one year old she had been betrothed to Henry, the future count of Champagne and nephew of Adele, queen of France. However, Isabella’s father later reneged on his promises, and arranged Isabella’s marriage to Philip, the son and heir of Louis VII. Philip had been crowned junior king of France in 1179. Isabella and Philip were married on 28 April 1180 and Isabella was crowned queen exactly one month later, even though her father-in-law was still king. With Louis VII’s death Philip and Isabella acceded to the throne as sole king and queen in September of the same year.

Philip was a capricious being when it came to his wives, indeed, he attempted to repudiate Isabella when she was only fourteen. Isabella’s father had taken the side of his enemies in war against Flanders, but he cited her failure to produce an heir as his reason for putting her aside, despite her still-tender age. Unfortunately for Philip, Isabella appeared before the council at Sens, called to support his repudiation of her, barefoot and penitent. Isabella was a popular queen and the people were so taken with this act of humility that their protests forced the king to take her back.

Isabella of Hainault

She gave birth to the desired son and heir, the future Louis VIII, three years later, in 1187. However, on 14 March 1190 she gave birth to twin boys, Robert and Philip, but died from complications the next day, aged just nineteen; the babies died three days after their mother. The Chronique rimee of Philippe Mouskes described her as “Queen Isabelle, she of noble form and lovely eyes.” Philip II left on Crusade just a few short months after Isabella’s death; however, with only one living son, he was soon looking around for a new wife.

Ingeborg was the daughter of Valdemar I the Great, king of Denmark, and Sofia of Minsk, and was the youngest of their eight surviving children. Born around 1176, it was only six years later, in 1182, that her father died. Valdemar was succeeded by Ingeborg’s older brother, Knut (or Canute) VI; and it fell to Knut to arrange Ingeborg’s future. I could not find any details of Ingeborg’s childhood, although she was probably educated to the standard expected of princesses of the time, in order to make her attractive in the international royal marriage market. A princess was expected to be able to manage a household, to sew, play music, sing, dance and much more.

Ingeborg held many political attractions for the king of France, her brother not only had a claim to the English throne, stretching back to the time of Cnut the Great, who ruled England in the eleventh century, but he also possessed an impressive navy, one which Philip would rather have with him, than against him. Such an alliance also helped France and Denmark to stand up to the expansionism of the Holy Roman Empire, under Emperor Henry VI.

On the conclusion of negotiations with Knut’s representatives, Philip sent an embassy to Denmark, to escort his bride back to France. The envoys were afforded a lavish reception at the Danish court, where the formal arrangements for the marriage were finalised. Ingeborg was provided with a dowry of 10,000 marks in gold and set out for a new life in France, accompanied by the French envoys and many Danish dignitaries, probably not expecting to ever see her homeland again. Ten years older than Ingeborg, Philip met his bride for the first time on their wedding day, 14 August 1193, in the cathedral church at Amiens. Ingeborg was crowned queen of France the next day, by the archbishop of Reims; her name changed to Isambour, to make it more acceptable to the French language, though what she thought of this, we cannot say.

Ingeborg of Denmark

At seventeen years of age, contemporary sources extolled her excellent qualities; in addition to the obligatory courtly praise of her appearance, comparing her beauty with that of Helen of Troy, she was a model of virtue. Ingeborg was described as ‘very kind, young of age but old of wisdom’ by Étienne de Tournai, who knew her well and said that the beauty of her soul overshadowed that of her face. Remarkably, given subsequent events, even those chroniclers devoted to her Philip II, such as Guillaume le Breton, spoke of the new queen with respect.

Unfortunately, no one knows what happened on the wedding night, but poor Ingeborg had one of the shortest honeymoon periods in history; and by the end of the coronation ceremony he had such an aversion to Ingeborg that he tried to get the Danish envoys to take her home with them. Ingeborg, however, refused to go, saying that she had been crowned queen of France, and her place was now in France. Queen Ingeborg sought sanctuary in a convent in Soissons, from where she wrote an appeal to the pope, Celestine III. Three months later, Philip established a friendly ecclesiastical council in Compiègne, in an attempt to have the marriage annulled. Ingeborg was present, but, speaking no French, had little understanding of the proceedings until they were interpreted for her.

Philip claimed that Ingeborg was related to his first wife, and the marriage was therefore within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, going so far as to falsify his family tree to provide proof. As a result, the churchmen, sympathetic to their king, determined that the marriage was void.  When Ingeborg was informed of the decision, she appealed to Rome, protesting loudly “Mala Francia! Roma! Roma!” Her homeland finally took notice of Ingeborg’s plight and following a meeting with a Danish delegation, who produced their own genealogy showing that Ingeborg and Philippe had very little blood in common, the pope declared the decision by Philip’s ecclesiastical council to be invalid and ordered that Philip should take back his wife, and was not to remarry.

Thwarted by Ingeborg’s stubbornness, Philip decided to force her to acquiesce, by making Ingeborg’s life as uncomfortable as possible. She was placed under house arrest; first at an abbey near Lille, then at the monastery of Saint Maur des Fossés and at various other convents afterwards, her treatment becoming gradually harsher the longer she refused to give in. For seven years, the French court saw nothing of her; Étienne de Tournai reported, to the archbishop of Reims, that “she spent all her days in prayer, reading, work; solemn practices fill her every moment”.

Ingeborg’s psalter

Ingeborg would spend twenty years, incarcerated in various castles and abbeys, contesting any annulment. The longer her imprisonment, the more desperate her situation became; Ingeborg was forced to sell or pawn most of her possessions, even down to her clothing, in order to sustain herself. She later described herself, in a letter to the pope, Celestine III, as “…discarded like a dried and diseased branch; here I am, deprived of all help and consolation.”

As the consanguinity argument was not working for Philip, in pursuit of his divorce, and with his counsellors already having an eye on a new bride for the king, another argument was advanced; that of non-consummation. Ingeborg, however, remained steadfast, insisting that she and Philip had slept together on their wedding night. The pope again took Ingeborg’s side. Philip disregarded the pope’s decree to return to Ingeborg and took a new wife, Agnes of Merania, a German princess, in 1196. They had two children together, Philip and Marie, illegitimate due to their father’s bigamous marriage with their mother. However, in 1198, the new pope, Innocent III, asserted his authority by declaring the marriage invalid, he announced that Philip was still married to Ingeborg and ordered the king to return to his true wife.

Agnes of Merania

Philip responded by making Ingeborg’s imprisonment even harsher. Following vigorous correspondence between Paris and the papacy Innocent responded with his most powerful weapon; excommunication. On 15 January 1200, the whole of France was put under interdict, all churches were closed. There were to be no church services or offices; no sacraments were to be performed, save for the baptism of new-borns and the last rites of the dying, until Philip acquiesced to the pope’s demands and, at least, renounced Agnes, even if he didn’t return to Ingeborg. Indeed, Philip’s own son, Louis, had to hold his wedding to Blanche of Castile, daughter of Eleanor of Castile, in Normandy due to the interdict.

Towards the end of the year Philip finally gave in. Poor Agnes was stripped of her status as Philip’s wife and exiled from court; she died in July 1201, heartbroken. Her two children by Philip were legitimised by the pope shortly afterwards. For Ingeborg, however, nothing changed. Philip refused to take her back and appealed again for an annulment, this time claiming that she had bewitched him on their wedding night. The appeal, again, was refused and Ingeborg was only released – finally – in 1213. Philippe’s change of heart was not out of any sense of guilt, affection or justice, but more for practicality. With King John’s barons risen against him, the situation in England was ripe to be exploited, and Philip needed peace with Denmark in order to concentrate his attentions on the greater prize; the English throne.

Seal of Philip II Augusts

Ingeborg had been a prisoner in France for twenty years. Now, because of political expediency, she was not only free, but reinstated as queen, accorded the respect and dignity she had had a right to since her wedding day in 1193. However, her husband never returned to her bed; it was for outward appearances only. His son, Louis, now had his own son and heir, and so there was no need for Philip to be with Ingeborg, physically, in order to secure the succession. On his deathbed, in 1223, Philip II Augustus asked his son to treat Ingeborg well; while in his will, he left her 10,000 livres. The new king, Louis VIII, and his son, Louis IX, would both treat Ingeborg kindly and accord her all the respect due to her rank as dowager queen of France. Such an action was politically preferable to Louis; by recognising Ingeborg as legitimate queen of France he emphasised that Agnes had not been, and that, therefore, her children, especially Louis’s half-brother, Philip, had no right to the throne (despite his legitimisation by the pope).

After Philip’s death Ingeborg paid for masses to be said for his soul, whether out of duty, or as a sign of forgiveness, we’ll never know. A dignified and pious widow, she then retired to the priory of St Jean de l’Île, Corbeil. She died in 1238, surviving her husband by more than fourteen years and was buried in a church in Corbeil, having spent twenty of her forty-five years, as queen, a prisoner of her husband.


Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Géraud, Hercule, Ingeburge de Danemark, reine de France, 1193-1236. Mémoire de feu Hercule Géraud, couronné par l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres dans sa séance du 11 août 1844. [Première partie.] Article; Étienne de Tournai, quoted in Géraud, Hercule, Ingeburge de Danemark, reine de France, 1193-1236. Mémoire de feu Hercule Géraud, couronné par l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres dans sa séance du 11 août 1844. [Première partie.] Article; Anna Belfrage Weep, Ingeborg, weep, (article) annabelfrage.wordpress.com; Goubert, Pierre The Course of French History; histoirefrance.net; historyofroyalwomen.com.


My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.


You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.


©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly