On this date—June 15—in the year 1215, English nobles compelled King John to affix his seal to a remarkable document, the Magna Carta. The event is often regarded as the kick-off to the long, 800-year march of liberty in the British Isles.
As I previously explained, war and taxes played key roles in pressuring John to that table at Runnymede. However, an event two centuries before can stake a strong claim as the real genesis of English liberty.
The principal figure in this earlier occasion is known in history as King Aethelred the Unready, who ruled England from 978 to 1013 and then again from 1014 to his death in 1016 at the age of 49. “Unready” meant “poorly-advised,” not ill-prepared or asleep at the switch. His rule was so disastrous that he is invariably on the short list as worst of all the English monarchs since the first one, Alfred the Great in the 9th Century.
Aethelred’s tenure started out reasonably well. He became king at age 12 upon his brother’s death in 978. England was at peace and was the richest, most politically sophisticated nation in Europe. But it all unraveled with the coming of the Danish Vikings in the 980s. Fiercely aggressive, the well-armed Danes attacked and looted village after village. When English forces lost the fateful Battle of Maldon in 991, Aethelred was forced to pay annual Danegeld (or tribute) in gold and silver to the Danes. Renewed warfare was assured when, in 1002, Aethelred ordered the St. Brice’s Day massacre, the execution of Danish settlers in England. By 1013, Danish forces succeeded in driving the English King into exile in Normandy.
Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark was now King of England but he died within a year. The opportunity arose for Aethelred’s return and a resumption of his Anglo-Saxon monarchy. But England would not take him back without exacting some concessions.
In Episode 2 of his BBC documentary, Monarchy, historian David Starkey explains:
The surviving English leaders invited Aethelred to return as King—on certain conditions…The complaints against [him] included high taxes, extortion and the enslavement of free men. By the end of the talks, Aethelred was forced to agree to govern within the rules established by his predecessor [the more moderate Edward the Martyr].
The result was a formal, written compact, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), in which the King consented to lighten up. It was, in Starkey’s words, “the Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta” and “the first constitutional settlement” in English history. Aethelred ruled for two more years before he died, but an important precedent was set. Even if he claimed to rule by “Divine Right,” the king no longer possessed unchecked, limitless discretionary power. He had agreed, according to the ASC, “to govern more justly than he had in the past.”
Richard Abels, retired professor of history at the US Naval Academy, tells us in his book, Aethelread the Unready: The Failed King, what English nobles had in mind in imposing terms on the ruler’s restoration:
Anglo-Saxon kings could and did legislate against reeves [magistrates] who abused their authority but policing and disciplining those who acted in the king’s name was difficult in the best of times and nearly impossible in the chaotic conditions created by recurring Viking raids. Excessive royal exactions undoubtedly were also high on the list, as were complaints about ill-conceived or poorly implemented policies. One suspects that many landowners thought Aethelred overly eager to find reasons to confiscate property. Others may have been uneasy about the violence that had plagued the king’s court. Quite simply, the elites of the realm wanted the king to conduct himself more lawfully.
This was in the year 1014. When English nobles forced King John to the table 201 years later, they were probably thinking, “We’ve done this before. We can do it again. This time, let’s make it stick.”