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Pope Innocent III and the Annulment of Magna Carta



Historians have offered a variety of explanations for Pope Innocent III's release of King John from the promise that he made to observe the clauses of Magna Carta. None has won general acceptance. This article proposes an alternative by examining the tenets of the canon law as it was understood in 1215. That examination shows that the law of oaths (De iureiurando) played a central role in canonistic thought of the time. It contained the juristic resources that made it possible for Innocent to release John from the oath that he had taken at Runnymeade.



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1 The text is given in Chartes des libertés anglaises (1100–1305), ed. Bémont, Charles, Paris 1892, 41–4, and Selected letters of Pope Innocent III concerning England (1198–1216), ed. Cheney, C. R. and Semple, W. H., London 1953, no. 82 at pp. 212–16. For an English translation see Magraw, D., Martinez, A. and Brownell, R. (eds), Magna Carta and the rule of law, New York 2014, 401–3.

2 See, for example, X 1.6.34 (Venerabilem); X 2.1.13 (Novit ille); X 4.17.13 (Per venerabilem).

3 This article takes no position on the disputed question of whether Innocent had himself undertaken a study of the canon law; on this question see Pennington, Kenneth, ‘The legal education of Pope Innocent iii ’, Bulletin of Medieval Canon Law iv (1974), 70–7; Moore, John, ‘Lotario dei Conti di Segni (Pope Innocent iii) in the 1180s’, Archivum historiae pontificiae xix (1991), 255–8; and Kay, Richard, ‘Innocent iii as canonist and theologian’, in Moore, John C. (ed.), Pope Innocent III and his world, Aldershot 1999, 3549 .

4 Selected letters, introduction at p. xxiv; Duggan, Anne, ‘Master of the Decretals: a reassessment of Alexander iii’s contribution to canon law’, in Clarke, Peter and Duggan, Anne (eds), Pope Alexander III (1159–81): the art of survival, Farnham–Burlington, Vt 2012, 365–417 at pp. 370–1.

5 This was not then impossible. See Brundage, James, ‘The managerial revolution in the English Church’, in Loengard, Janet (ed.), Magna Carta and the England of King John, Woodbridge 2010, 8398 .

6 Magraw, Martinez and Brownell, Magna Carta and the rule of law, 55; Baumann, Daniel, Stephen Langton: Erzbishof von Canterbury im England der Magna Carta (1207–1228), Leiden–Boston, Ma 2009, 149–89; Drew, Katherine Fischer, Magna Carta, Westport, Ct 2004, 49 ; Fryde, Natalie, Why Magna Carta: Angevin England revisited, Münster 2001, 24 ; Bartlett, Robert, England under the Norman and Angevin kings, Oxford 2000, 180–1; Warren, W. L., King John, London 1961, 245–6; Hudson, John, Oxford history of the laws of England, I: 871–1216, Oxford 2012, 852–3: Thompson, Faith, The first century of Magna Carta: why it persisted as a document (1925), Minneapolis, Mn 1967, 4 .

7 For example, Carpenter, D. A., ‘The Plantagenet kings’, in Abulafia, David (ed.), New Cambridge medieval history, V: c. 1190–c. 1300, Cambridge 1999, 314–57 at p. 327.

8 For example, Lee, Simon, ‘The cardinal rule of religion and the rule of law: a musing on Magna Carta’, in Griffith-Jones, Robin and Hill, Mark (eds), Magna Carta, religion and the rule of law, Cambridge 2015, 314–18.

9 X 2.29.1 (Comp. ii. 2.20.1); X 1.19.10 (Comp. i. 1.29.5). For fuller discussion of the privilege see Brundage, James, Medieval canon law and the crusader, Madison, Wi 1969, 159–90.

10 Authors who have laid stress upon the feudal tie in explaining the pope's right to annul Magna Carta include McKechnie, William, Magna Carta: a commentary on the Great Charter of King John, 2nd edn, Glasgow 1914, 46 ; Swindler, William, Magna Carta: legend and legacy, Indianapolis, In 1965, 100–1; and Arlidge, Anthony and Judge, Igor, Magna Carta uncovered, Oxford–Portland, Or 2014, 32–3.

11 See the account, with full citation of sources, in Cheney, C. R., Pope Innocent III and England, Stuttgart 1976, 332–7.

12 For example, Kate Norgate asserts that chapter 61 in Carta, Magnawas itself in feudal law null and void from the beginning’: John Lackland, London 1902, 245–6.

13 It asserted that judgement in the dispute belonged to the pope ‘by reason of our lordship’.

14 The principal article that successfully attacked the ‘feudal’ explanation was Adams, G. B., ‘Innocent iii and the Great Charter’, in Malden, H. E. (ed.), Magna Carta commemoration essays, London 1917, 2645 .

15 See Annales de Dunstaplia, s.d. 1214’, in Annales monastici, iii, ed. Luard, Henry R. (Rolls Series xxxvi, 1866), 43 . The Charter as ‘quasi per coactionem et metum a rege extortam’.

16 X 1.40.1–7.

17 See Anson's law of contract 18th edn, ed. Beatson, J., Oxford 2002, 276–82.

18 Holt, J. C., Magna Carta, 3rd edn, Cambridge 2015, 228 .

19 Jones, Dan, Magna Carta: The making and legacy of the Great Charter, London 2015, 93 ; Carpenter, David, Magna Carta, London 2015, 400 ; Turner, Ralph V., Magna Carta through the ages, Harlow 2003, 77–9; Harper–Bill, Christopher, ‘John and the Church of Rome’, in Church, S. D. (ed.), King John: new interpretations, Woodbridge 1999, 289315 at p. 312; Thorne, S. E., ‘What Magna Carta was’, in The Great Charter: four essays on Magna Carta, New York 1965, 117 at p. 16; Thompson, First century of Magna Carta, 6; Richardson, H. G. and Sayles, G. O., The governance of mediaeval England from the Conquest to Magna Carta, Edinburgh 1963, 392 .

20 Cheney, Innocent III and England, 382.

21 Ibid. 386. For a similar understanding of Innocent iii’s motivation see Duffy, Eamon, Ten popes who shook the world, New Haven, Ct–London 2011, 71–9, and Fryde, Natalie, ‘Innocent iii, England and the modernization of European international politics’, in Sommerlechner, Andrea (ed.), Innocenzo III: urbs et orbis, Rome 2003, ii. 971–84.

22 Taken from the Oxford English dictionary, 2nd edn, Oxford 1989, x. 631 .

23 See, for example, Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2a2ae, qu. 89, art. 4, Blackfriars edn, New York–London 1964, 212–13. Aquinas states that an oath necessarily constitutes a religious and worshipful act.

24 Recent years have witnessed what might be called a mini-revival of interest in the oath, particularly in German scholarship. See, for example, Kreusch, Irina Maria, Der Eid zwischen Schwurverbot Jesu und kirchlichem Recht, Berlin 2005 ; Esders, Stefan and Scharff, Thomas (eds), Eid und Wahrheitssuche: Studien zu rechtlichen Befragunspraktiken im Mittelalter und frühe Neuzeit, Frankfurt 1999 ; Prodi, Paolo, Il sacramento del potere: il giuramento politico nella storia costituzionale dell'Occidente, Bologna 1992 ; and Gray, Jonathan, Oaths and the English Reformation, Cambridge 2012 .

25 So described in Lea, Henry C., Superstition and force, 2nd edn revised, New York 1870 , repr. 1971, 73.

26 For example, C. 22 q. 5 c. 3, approving application of penalties for swearing falsely even under compulsion, because the oath taker ‘plus corpus quam animam dilexit’.

27 Taken from the Oxford English dictionary, 2nd edn, x. 631.

28 C. 22 q. 1.

29 d.p. C. 11 q. 1 c. 16.

30 Dig.

31 X 2.24.8 (Comp. i. 2.17.4).

32 X 2.24.1, 6, 30 (Comp. ii. 2.16.4; Comp. i. 2.17.2; Comp. iv. 2.9.3).

33 X 2.24.7, 11 (Comp. i. 2.17.3; Comp. ii. 2.16.2).

34 X 2.24.18 (Comp. iii. 2.15.4).

35 X 2.24.29 (Comp. iv. 2.19.2).

36 X 2.24.16, 23 (Comp. iii. 2.15.1; Comp. iii. 2.12.9).

37 X 2.24.3, 8, 15 (Comp. i. 2.17.10; Comp. i. 2.17.4).

38 See gl. ord. ad X 2.24.2, s.v. pervenit. See also gl. ord. ad C. 15 q. 6 c. 2, s.v. fidelitatis.

39 Gl. ord. ad X 2.24.7, s.v. ad restituendum.

40 The evidence on this point is given in Helmholz, R. H., ‘Assumpsit and fidei laesio’, Law Quarterly Review xc (1976), 406–32.

41 ‘Et est ratio, quia perjurium directe concernit Dei irreverentiam, quae proprie est religioni Christianae contraria’: William Lyndwood, Provinciale (seu Constitutiones Angliae), Oxford 169, 315. See also gl. ord. ad. C. 22 q. 2 c. 17, s.v. distantiam: ‘plus operatur sacramentum quam simplex promissio’.

42 Sext 2.11.2.

43 X 4.1.2 (Comp. i. 4.1.11).

44 Ibid. ‘ne forte deterius inde contingat’. This apparent substance of this decision was contradicted by a later decision by Alexander iii (X 4.1.10), but the former became the communis opinio among the canonists.

45 X 4.1.13–15. See Sangmeister, J., Force and fear as precluding matrimonial consent: a historical synopsis and commentary, Washington, DC 1932, 5664 .

46 See Schutte, Anne Jacobson, By force and fear: taking and breaking monastic vows in early modern Europe, Ithaca, NY 2011 .

47 X 1.40.4 (Comp. iii. 1.23.1).

48 X 1.40.2 (Comp. i. 1.30.2).

49 Gl. ord. ad idem, s.v. coactus; it surveyed the various understandings and possibilities to be found within the text.

50 Gl. ord. ad X 2.24 8, s.v. proprium iuramentum: ‘[C]ommunior est opinio et verior quod iuramentum metu extortum [est] obligatiorium quia voluntarium’, also citing C. 15 q. 1 c. 1 in support.

51 For example, X 2.24.16, but it was understood to hold only that if the oath taker did not fulfill an oath taken under duress, he would be less severely punished for perjury than he would have been if he had taken it willingly.

52 Another example is found at X 1.40.3, where a cleric had renounced his election because of the fear induced by lay threats against him. His renunciation was treated as invalid ‘unless it had been confirmed by the interposition of an oath’.

53 X 2.24.6: ‘Si vero de ipsarum solutione iuraverunt cogendi sunt domino reddere iuramentum.’

54 Compare gl. ord. ad idem, s.v. cogi non debet: ‘iuramentum super hoc factum est servandum’ with gl. ord. ad idem, s.v. cogendi sunt: ‘Sed videtur quod non sunt cogendi nam debitor habet actionem ad repetendum usuras.’

55 See Caffiero, Marina, Forced baptisms: history of Jews, Christians and converts in papal Rome, trans. Cochrane, Lydia, Berkeley–Los Angeles 2012 .

56 See Levy, Ian, ‘Liberty of conscience and freedom of religion in the medieval canonists’, in Shah, Timothy and Hertzke, Allen (eds), Christianity and freedom: historical perspectives, Cambridge 2016, 150–4.

57 Dig.

58 X 2.24.27 (Comp. iii. 1.1.3).

59 See gl. ord. ad X 2.24.16 (Comp. iii. 2.25.1) s.v. veniens: ‘Item iuramentum contrarium alio iuramento licite facto servandum non est.’ But see X 2.24.11 (Comp. ii. 2.16.2), in which it was held that the second prevailed because it was supported by the decrees of one of the Lateran Councils.

60 X 2.24.3.

61 C. 22 q. 1 c. 8; X 5.12.4 (Comp. i. 5.10.6).

62 C.22 q. 4. cc. 1–23.

63 C. 22 q. 4 c. 8.

64 Gl. ord. ad idem, s.v. quod ebrius and saltantium.

65 X 2.24.12 §1 (Comp. i. 2.17.11).

66 Gl. ord. ad idem, s.v. absolvendi.

67 X 2.24.24.

68 X 2.24.27 (Comp. III. 1.1.3).

69 My understanding accords most closely with the reading of these events given by Vincent, Nicholas in Magna Carta: origins and legacy, Oxford 2015, 71–2.

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