- Annotated with suggested further readings and in-line links to additional web content
The close of the twelfth century was marked by the first faint dawn of that noble literature, whose advances and triumphs throw the glories of conquest into deeper shade. The progress of a people in letters indicates the point of civilization and of culture at which they have arrived. Had the throne been filled by any other man than John—that embodiment and personification of human weakness—there can be no doubt that England would not only have taker the precedence of all the European nations in the race of intellectual and moral improvement, but would have left them at no common distance. The single act by which he sold his kingdom for a peace with Rome, for ever impresses with ignominy the character of this prince. We conceal not the fact, that the ecclesiastical hierarchy had been fast encroaching on the province of the civil power—that the government of John was in danger from the spirit of discontent which characterized the clergy — that his kingdom was under the interdicts of the Holy See — that he himself had been excommunicated, and was now threatened with deposition that his excommunication, by reaching to all who had any intercourse with him, amounted to the annihilation of government, law, and property — the impunity of crimes, as well as the invalidity of all contracts and dealings—that, in these circumstances, he had but a choice of evils, either to submit to the power which was bearing down upon him with such accumulated and crushing force, or lay himself prostrate at the feet of the pontiff; and that to this latter step he was counselled and advised by his barons; still, all this does not, and cannot extenuate his conduct. But for their manly struggle in securing the MAGNA Charta, his people would have been reduced to the most enthralling bondage. Under the sanction of the pope’s decree, the king recalled all the liberties which he had granted to his subjects, and wantonly broke the promises which he had sworn to observe. His doings rendered him obnoxious to the nation, and his kingdom was in danger. In their extremity, the barons offered the crown to Louis, the eldest son of the king of France. Just at this crisis, the monarch died, and England was saved, first from an ecclesiastical despotism, whose aim all along had been to render the civil power subordinate to the spiritual authority, and afterwards from the degradation of a foreign yoke.