Wednesday, April 1, 2015

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. 


  1. It is extremely interesting to see the influence of papal authority on temporal governments. Reading in other classes about religious influence in western society, it is funny how this is a theme that appears again and again. If my knowledge of European history is worth anything I’m not so sure that the Papal bull was very successful in this case. I wonder what the exact tipping point is in this case. I understand that we have come a long way from Henry walking barefoot in the snow at Canossa, and I wonder what the exact event was that changed all this, if it was a certain event.
    The pope’s description of the reasons why he considered it legal are also interesting. This predates Papal infallibility so the justification for calling it “illegal, unjust etc.” is based off of his own understanding, presumably not “the will of God”. With that being said it makes the justification for it appear to be based only on the desire for personal power, or at least the power and authority of the church. So that is a little petty. But I digress.

  2. The papacy has always held a grand amount of secular power, which has been justified by its spiritual sovereignty of medieval Europe. Examples of this power can be seen from the Magna Carta to the founding of Brazil. And since the pope holds so much power and influence, so did his symbols, such as the papal bull or in this case, King John.
    As his vassal, King John could no service Innocent III well if he was barred by the Magna Carta. So while it was petty, and was only done to increase the power of the papacy, Innocent II did was he believed would benefit him and his chair the most. So honestly I'm surprised he gave any reasoning whatsoever.

  3. I always think of this document in relation to the ‘Robin Hood’ series. But upon reading what as occurred in King’s John situation, he sounds like he is in a rather tough situation. He can either not listen to the Baron’s and get overthrown or give in and give up some of his power. It is interesting how the Pope reacts to the news of the Magna Carta. John is probably not a happy camper, but he was excommunicated so Innocent shouldn’t really see a problem with letting him suffer. But instead, the Innocent gets involved with the problems that John was facing and writing something to back up someone who he, himself, excommunicated. The papacy playing a part in the secular part of the world has to be one of the interesting parts of Medieval Europe. But I find it strange that it occurs even here because of the growing independence of books. If books are going independent and becoming common then that must make for a movement away from the Church. It seems even then, the Church has a pretty good hold on all things secular without the book trade. Maybe a foreshadowing thought about the Church from this point (slowing losing secular power).

  4. I think I disagree with all of the responses so far, and rather see this as a major aspect of the Pope's reconciliation with King John. In the text is described John's re-conversion, and the tribute he'll give annually. I don't know a lot about the history of it, but I'd suspect that this is itself probably a pretty important document in describing the details of John's excommunication, and later return to the Church. The document also describes how John gave over all of England and Ireland to the Pope as feudal lord. It would then seem in Pope Innocent’s best interest protect the kingdom and its royalty from encroaching rule. This would be particularly important as this is a time when the English and the French were very hostile, fighting over Normandy. Prior to his reconciliation with John, Innocent III had aligned himself with Philip, and just afterwards John suffered a defeat in a campaign (supported by the Church) in France. By reaffirming his support for John, Innocent III was making what appears to me to be a rather desperate attempt to create more stability in the region. After giving support to John in war, it would be rather unfortunate to watch England’s monarchy crumble from within.