Page:Van Loon--The Story of Mankind.djvu/236

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

186

THE STORY OF MANKIND

torical stage and its rise in power, as we saw in the last chapter, had meant a decrease in the influence of the castle folk.

Thus far, the king, in ruling his domains, had only paid attention to the wishes of his noblemen and his bishops. But the new world of trade and commerce which grew out of the Crusades forced him to recognise the middle class or suffer from an ever-increasing emptiness of his exchequer. Their majesties (if they had followed their hidden wishes) would have as lief consulted their cows and their pigs as the good burghers of their cities. But they could not help themselves. They swallowed the bitter pill because it was gilded, but not without a struggle.

In England, during the absence of Richard the Lion Hearted (who had gone to the Holy Land, but who was spending the greater part of his crusading voyage in an Austrian jail) the government of the country had been placed in the hands of John, a brother of Richard, who was his inferior in the art of war, but his equal as a bad administrator. John had begun his career as a regent by losing Normandy and the greater part of the French possessions. Next, he had managed to get into a quarrel with Pope Innocent III, the famous enemy of the Hohenstaufens. The Pope had excommunicated John (as Gregory VII had excommunicated the Emperor Henry IV two centuries before). In the year 1213 John had been obliged to make an ignominious peace just as Henry IV had been obliged to do in the year 1077.

Undismayed by his lack of success, John continued to abuse his royal power until his disgruntled vassals made a prisoner of their anointed ruler and forced him to promise that he would be good and would never again interfere with the ancient rights of his subjects. All this happened on a little island in the Thames, near the village of Runnymede, on the 15th of June of the year 1215. The document to which John signed his name was called the Big Charter — the Magna Carta. It contained very little that was new. It re-stated in short and direct sentences the ancient duties of the king and enumerated the privileges of his vassals. It paid little attention to the