Nullifying the Magna Carta: The Bull of Pope Innocent III
Issued August 24, 1215, by Innocent III, Cotton MS Cleopatra E I is written on very fine white parchment in the typical script of the papal chancery, and authenticated with the leaden "bull" of the pope's office. Innocent III offered it as a response to the signing of the Magna Carta by King John on June 15, 1215.
The Magna Carta, itself a charter as the name says, was an agreement that King John was forced into signing by a group of rebel barons; it guaranteed a certain set of rights and protections for the barons from the king, including the right to swift justice, a limitation of feudal dues, and the establishment of a twenty-five baron council. Though it is generally considered the basis of fair, limited government in England, at the time it was radical, and represented a real threat to royal power. Innocent III had already sent a series of letters to the barons in question rebuking them for their actions. After the signing of the Magna Carta, the barons did not disarm and disperse, which infuriated John.
Innocent III's involvement in the conflict was not grounded only on spiritual power, which is part of what makes this exchange so interesting. The king of England was bound to the papacy by feudal ties -- King John was Innocent's vassal, so any limitation of his power represented an attack on the power of the pope as well. This arrangement was fairly recent, and indeed had contributed somewhat to the distress of the English barons (the Magna Carta includes a clause declaring that the English Church would remain free and independent, probably in reference to papal suzerainty); King John ceded the territory of England to the pope in 1213, in an attempt to end his excommunication.
King John is typically presented as a tyrannical ruler, and his interactions with the pope and his barons support that characterization to a degree: Innocent III excommunicated him as a part of the struggle over the independent church and the right of the monarch to have some say in the selection, and consequently the loyalties, of church officials in his territory. Though John ceded to Innocent not just the argument but also his fealty, the struggle over the right of appointment was not laid to rest in any sense, and conflict between church and state tended to intensify as monarchs continued to centralize power.
Innocent's nullification of the Magna Carta took the typical form of a charter, and it assumes by its nature the authority of the pope to nullify documents which he did not see to be in line with church doctrine or which threatened his power. It represents a tangible reminder that the church was a strong secular as well as religious power for most of its history, though in this case Innocent's declaration was essentially ignored, and the Magna Carta was defended in the First Barons' War. Innocent in particular was one of the most politically active popes, organizing the Fourth Crusade and involving himself in the conflicts of the Continent. The grounds on which Innocent nullified the Magna Carta reveal the tension between the Church's position as both a secular and a religious entity: though his position on its contents was clear (he called it "illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights, and shameful to the English people"), he declared it void because its signing was coerced and the result of violence, an ostensibly spiritual and moral reason.
The bull itself provides some insight into the mechanisms of these conflicts between political powers, as it follows a particular format and addresses its subjects in particular style and language (literally, in some sense; all these documents were written in formal Latin, inaccessible to the illiterate majority). It also reveals the system of loyalty and individual power that characterized feudalism: the pope could claim domination over the entirety of England because he held control of one man, King John's, soul; it was possible for Innocent III to rebuke a particular set of barons because the group in revolt was relatively small and select. Though rulers were beginning to develop the process of bureaucracy and the institutions of governance, the establishment of a system of rule not focused in an individual person had not yet been occurred.