Magna Carta

Magna Carta, or the Great Charter of King John, was sealed on June 15, 1215. Great not for its size but for its significance, the document is extraordinary in several respects. Resulting from a rebellion of the aristocracy against John for having purportedly abused his proper authority, the Magna Carta established individual liberties relative to the state; it is the closest equivalent to a written constitution the British have; and it became the constitutional foundation for modern states throughout the world. The American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are rooted in the Magna Carta.

Historical Background

There were three main sources of social and political tension in thirteenth-century England. A rapidly expanding economy unleashed ambition among nobles who made increasing demands upon a strong and self-serving Angevin monarchy. Embers of discontent brought forth fires of rebellion. The overwhelming power of the monarchy brought forth constitutional limitations on that power. At the same time, tensions had mounted between the papacy and the Crown. William, duke of Normandy, had appealed for papal authorization to invade England in 1066, which was granted on the promise of separation of church courts from secular courts. Those two courts operated under two separate laws (canon and common) and procedures, which gave rise to competition over jurisdiction and eventual dispute between church and king.

Finally, internal and external trade gave birth to a number of mercantile towns whose inhabitants enjoyed theretofore unknown liberties and political influence that threatened the feudal landholding order prevalent throughout the country. Although King John had recently granted these towns special privileges, his measures were not enough to appease the merchants and their armies. Indeed, while John managed to alienate various elements within England, including the church and merchants of London, it was the baronial rebellion of 1215 that ultimately forced him to grant the concessions and ‘‘liberties’’ contained within the Magna Carta. Importantly, through all of this tumult, civil rights and representative government were unborn notions. No part of Magna Carta, which essentially codified the laws regulating England’s feudal system, was intended for the vast majority of people who, as peasants, were considered property of the tiny aristocracy on whose land they lived and worked.

The Document

On August 5, 1100, Henry I approved the ‘‘Coronation Charter,’’ which was meant to resolve land grievances of the nobility against his recently deceased brother William II. That charter, sometimes called the blueprint for Magna Carta, promised to ‘‘abolish all the evil customs by which the kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed,’’ spelling out fourteen such offenses for the important bishops, barons, and ‘‘faithful vassals’’ of England. Magna Carta followed a similar format. King John addressed himself to ‘‘the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons . . . and faithful subjects.’’ and articulated fully sixty-three concessions. The first article stipulated that ‘‘the English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired . . . We have also granted to all free men of our kingdom, for ourselves and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written below.’’

The document went on to articulate fully sixtythree concessions by the Crown. None of the four remaining copies of this document are divided into separate articles, though most modern translations are presented with an introductory greeting to the relevant notables and sixty-three subsequent paragraphs. The most important clauses of the document are those declaring: ‘‘No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned . . . except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land,’’ and ‘‘to none will we sell, to none will we refuse or delay right or justice.’’ It is here that we find the beginnings of ‘‘due process’’ of law.

The Aftermath

It soon became evident that King John had no intention of honoring the Magna Carta. The aristocracy rebelled yet again, inviting the French to their aid and thus provoking civil war. Upon John’s death in October of 1216, advisers to his nine-year-old son persuaded the nobility to accept Henry III rather than a Frenchman as king, a task achieved by reissuing a revised Magna Carta. Indeed, the document was revised at least three times: in 1216 following John’s death, again in 1217, and definitively in 1225. All of the reissues dropped several of the original articles.

In particular, articles ten and eleven (interest payments on debts to Jews), twelve and fourteen (money paid by vassals in lieu of military service), fifty (removal of certain foreigners from office), fiftysix through fifty-nine (pertaining to Welshmen and Scots), and portions of fifty-five through sixty-one (the enforcement powers of a twenty-five person baronial council) were all dropped. Articles forty-four, forty-seven, and forty-eight, pertaining to ‘‘all evil customs connected with forests and warrens,’’ were dropped but later restored in the sixteen articles of the 1217 ‘‘Charter of the Forest’’ and thereafter always issued in conjunction with the Magna Carta. At subsequent times of tension between the king and his realm, the document was brought forth as a reminder that the king was not above the law. This was necessary, in 1297, when Henry III’s son Edward I suffered protests for financial abuse.

The ‘‘Myth’’

Magna Carta has taken on mythical status as the font of individual liberty, the British Parliament, and common law. Just what rights and liberties were contained within Magna Carta has been debated ever since its issuance. Certainly the Great Charter is regarded as having not only limited the power of the Crown while ensuring individual rights and liberties, but, in the words of Sir Edward Coke, Magna Carta was ‘‘declaratory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws of England.’’ Indeed, centuries of reference to the Magna Carta have established it as England’s higher law, despite its original more limited purpose as a safeguard of feudal order and ‘‘liberties’’ for the privileged classes.

The extent to whichMagna Carta sowed the seeds of England’s modern Parliament, the attempt ‘‘to obtain the common counsel of the kingdom,’’ is also contested. The document’s longest article, by far, was number sixty-one, stating that ‘‘the barons shall choose any twenty-five barons of the kingdom they wish, who must with all their might observe, hold and cause to be observed, the peace and liberties which we [the king] have granted and confirmed to them by this present charter.’’ Parliament evolved gradually over the following years; grounding that development in the Magna Carta becomes difficult upon realizing that article sixty-one was struck from the revised 1216 document and all subsequent versions. Furthermore, with the Settlement of 1689 and the conclusion of the Glorious Revolution, supreme power was transferred from Crown to Parliament in a way that was antithetical to the doctrine of fundamental law. Yet, in spite of its critics, the tradition of Magna Carta survives.

R. OWEN WILLIAMS

References and Further Reading

  • Drew, Katherine Fischer. Magna Carta. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.
  • Pallister, Anne. Magna Carta, the Heritage of Liberty. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
  • Turner, Ralph V. Magna Carta Through the Ages. London: Pearson, 2003.

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