Drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and signed by King John, the Magna Carta, meaning Great Charter of Freedoms in Latin, has been called “the greatest constitutional document of all times” and even the “foundation of freedom.”
What most people don’t know is that the series of the events leading to the signing of this pivotal document in English history was the installation of a toilet in the chapel of Château Gaillard, King John’s castle in Normandy, that he had installed to use during church services.
The toilet chute proved to be the fatal flaw in the design of the castle, when it was used to breach the walls during a siege by King Philip II on his campaign to conquer the land held by the King of England.
The siege of the castle is given in a historical account:
Chateau Gaillard is a medieval castle in every sense. When we think of medieval times and castles, or when we watch a movie with combat from this period, we are seeing what happened during the life and times of this magnificent castle. Richard the Lion Hearted built it between 1196 and 1198 as part of his Crusades campaign, and although it isn’t a functioning castle anymore its remains can still be seen and visited.
It was built on a natural triangular formation of land on the bank of the Seine river and had all the hallmarks of a well-designed and well-fortified castle with both water and land as protection. It also had a remarkable set of three concentric circles for defense. The outer circle was wooden and the two inner circles were stone. These formations posed a formidable challenge to any attacking force but they were not invincible. In 1203 AD Philip, the King of France, lay siege to this castle and after eight months of battle it surrendered to him on March 8, 1204.
The siege began in August of 1203 when King Philip massed his forces around the land structure and dug ditches for protection. His forces then proceeded to dig a mining tunnel under the outer wooden wall of the castle. This breached the wall and the first step of the siege was complete.
The second castle wall proved to be much more difficult and it was thought that the French forces would not be able to accomplish the task until a flaw in the design of the castle was discovered. They found an unguarded toilet chute that lead right into a chapel within the second wall. French forces entered the chute and took over this middle section of the fortification.
The third, and final castle fortification, was surrounded by a water moat and a natural rock bridge that crossed it. The sieging army used the rock bridge as cover while they dug a tunnel that breached the wall. This breaching of the final wall was the demise of the castle and the knights that remained (20 knights, and 120 men at arms) surrendered to King Philip.
After Château Gaillard fell, Philip continued deeper into English-held land. First he took Normandy, then pushed to the coast and took over several more principalities including Anjou and Torraine.
Back in England, King John’s many defeats led to a loss of prestige at a time when he was already unpopular. A king who could not defend his own castles, or come to the aid of loyal lords holding out under siege by the French, was perceived as weak.
His humiliation at Château Gaillard led to King John being challenged by English major landowners as part of events leading to the First Baron’s War.
In attempts to make peace with royalist and rebel factions, King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, a decade after the French used his personal toilet to breach his castle.