My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have previously enjoyed reading Dan Jones' books, The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses, and I find the history of 13th and 14th century England and Europe in general quite fascinating, so I looked forward to reading Jones' new book, Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty. But even though the subject interests me and Jones is a very good writer of histories meant for the general population, for some reason, I just couldn't get connected to the flow of the narrative. Maybe it had more to do with my distractions than with the quality of the writing.
As most people probably do, I had some general knowledge of the Magna Carta as a founding document of western democracies but I wasn't especially knowledgable about the intricacies of how it came about and the background that led up to it. Nor was I really aware that the original didn't last more than a matter of months and that it was reissued again and again in the decades that followed the end of John's reign.
It turns out that John was just as unsavory a character as we were led to believe in all those Robin Hood stories, although, as Dan Jones carefully points out, the real Robin Hood did not actually come along until later, long after John was dead. As king, it seems that John was almost universally hated and with good reason, too.
John was, of course, the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Two of their five sons lived to be king of England. Richard the Lionheart was first after the death of his father. He was mostly an absentee king, often on crusade and then banged up in prison for a while when he was captured by enemies and held for ransom. England paid the ransom and got their king back, but he was soon off again and died abroad.
Richard had no heirs and so his brother was next in line. John became king on April 6, 1199 and ruled until his death on October 19, 1216. During that time he carried on a dispute with Pope Innocent III but was later reconciled with him, and Innocent supported him in his later battles with the barons of England.
The barons hated him for many reasons and finally forced upon him the agreement known as the Magna Carta at Runnymede near Windsor Castle on June 15, 1215. It was meant to rein in the worst of John's excesses, but, as I've already noted, it didn't endure for long in its original form.
It's interesting that this failed document has had such a deep and lasting impact on later societies seeking to establish governments, including our own. It was one of the documents which inspired the writing of the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution. So, perhaps Jones is right in characterizing it as "The Birth of Liberty."
Jones' books are carefully researched and this one is well-documented with footnotes and with an extensive bibliography. Moreover, he lays out the history of the document and its later influence on government in a straightforward and easy-to-follow manner. I'm not quite sure why it didn't grab my interest more than it did, but I certainly would not hesitate to recommend to anyone seeking information and an understanding of this important episode in the history of England and the West.
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