At the time of the Magna Carta, England was a ‘feudal’ society.
All lands technically belonged to the English King, who was the highest overlord in the feudal hierarchy. He managed some lands himself. This was known as his demesne (pronounced ‘domain’).
However, he divided most of his lands between a small number of powerful landowners. The landowners were known as his ‘vassals’, and the most powerful of them held earldoms or baronies. In return for the land and titles, the King’s vassals were expected to provide him with military and financial support when required.
These powerful men, in turn, would hold some of their lands themselves (as their own demesnes), and give out other portions to their own vassals. In this way a complicated hierarchy evolved, with chains of vassals bound to make certain obligations to their overlords.
But it is important to keep in mind that at least a small majority of the people in England at the time didn’t possess any land at all, but were tenants or landless serfs. Such people were bound to the lands of their overlords, which they worked in exchange for food and physical security.
In 1200, there might have been between 3 and 5 million people living in England. This is probably a high-point for the population of England up until the early seventeenth century. In the early thirteenth century, cities and towns were growing rapidly across England. As these towns were often freed from the restrictions of the ‘feudal’ hierarchy, they afforded many opportunities to those who lived in them—including merchants, smiths, and masons. However, at this stage, townspeople were still only a small portion of the population, and the vast majority still lived in rural villages or the countryside.
England’s largest city, London, might have been home to about 40,000 people. Other large towns, such as Winchester, York, Lincoln, and Norwich, were only a fraction of that size. On Europe’s mainland, Paris (France) and Ghent (Flanders) might each have been double the size of London at this time, while estimates of the population of Constantinople in this period range from 100,000 to more than 300,000.
In the absence of cars or trains, the only way to travel around England was to walk on foot, ride in a carriage or on horseback, or travel by boat down rivers or along the coast. And in the absence of the internet and telephones, the only way to carry messages from one place to another was to send a messenger. This meant that travel and communication was slow, and sometimes dangerous. Many people—particularly serfs—would have passed their whole lives without ever going further than the local market. Most would probably have known little about what was happening elsewhere in the Kingdom, and certainly would have had little input in affairs of state.