Background to Magna Carta

King John gives his approval of Magna Carta with his seal as the rebel barons look on, Runnymede, England, June 15, 1215. (Frank Wood, 1925 c; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

King John gives his approval of Magna Carta with his seal as the rebel barons look on, Runnymede, England, June 15, 1215. (Frank Wood, 1925 c; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, meaning “Great Charter,” is being marked this year. In the Anglo-American world, Magna Carta is considered one of the seminal legal documents. It was signed in Runnymede near Windsor Castle on June 15, 1215.

Originally issued by King John of England, who ruled from 1199-1216, Magna Carta was an arrangement between the King and rebel barons who opposed the onerous taxes imposed by the King on the lands they owned in order to fund his army.

In 1213, a party of rebel barons met with Archbishop Stephen Langton and a representative of Pope Innocent III (the overlord of the Kingdom of England and Ireland) to organize against the King. They called on him “to abolish all the evil customs by which the kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed.” In early 1215, the dispute escalated when King John refused to meet the barons’ demands.

As a result, the barons renounced their oaths of allegiance to him, and led by Robert fitz Walter (1162-1235), they captured the city of London and forced the King to negotiate. King John granted the Charter of Liberties, subsequently known as Magna Carta. On June 19, the rebel barons made their formal peace with King John and renewed their allegiance to him. Magna Carta was authenticated with the Great Seal, not the signature, of the king.

According to documents in the British Library, Magna Carta “established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. Although nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within ten years, and almost all the clauses have been repealed in modern times, Magna Carta remains a cornerstone of the British constitution.” What is more, the 25 rebel barons won important concessions including the right to redress laid out in clause 61: “SINCE WE HAVE GRANTED ALL THESE THINGS for God, for the better ordering of our kingdom, and to allay the discord that has arisen between us and our barons, and since we desire that they shall be enjoyed in their entirety, with lasting strength, for ever, we give and grant to the barons the following security:

“The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter. If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.”

Most of the 63 clauses in Magna Carta dealt with specific grievances relating to the King’s rule. Of these most have been repealed and only three remain part of English law. One defends the liberties and rights of the English Church. Another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third and most famous, Clause 39 states:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

The English consider this clause to be a cornerstone in the battle cry against the arbitrary use of state power against citizens. It is said to have informed subsequent declarations including the United States’ Bill of Rights (1791), the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). It must be noted, however, that the term “free men” only constituted a small section of the population of medieval England, including the barons, knights and the free peasantry:

“The distinction between the free and the unfree peasantry (‘the villeins’) varied across the country. Generally, in contrast to an unfree villein, a free man could leave his manor, could buy or sell land, and owned his goods and possessions. He was not required to make customary payments to his lord, nor help to cultivate his lord’s land. Free men still had to attend their lord’s court, but they also had access to the royal courts, which offered greater protection for their rights and property.”

“Very few clauses in Magna Carta dealt directly with the villeins – unfree peasants who formed most of the population. They were bound to their lord in a restrictive tie which they were not free to break. They had to spend some of their time cultivating their lord’s land without pay; they were not free to leave their manor; they did not own their goods and possessions; and they owed their lord numerous customary payments. Villeins also fell under the jurisdiction of their lord’s manorial court, without access to the protection of the royal courts.”

Magna Carta limited the fines which could be imposed on villeins, “so as not to deprive them of their livelihood. It also prohibited royal officials from seizing anyone’s goods without payment and forbade officials from arbitrarily forcing anyone to carry out bridge-building or riverbank repairs.”

Although King John agreed to the terms of Magna Carta and the barons renewed their oaths of allegiance, the settlement did not last long. Dissatisfied with the loss of power and the manner in which it was to be enforced, King John sent messengers to Pope Innocent III requesting that Magna Carta be annulled. In turn, the barons refused to surrender the city of London to the King until Magna Carta had been implemented.

Pope Innocent III was alarmed by the charter’s terms, and on August 24, 1215, issued a papal bull, describing “Magna Carta as ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people,’ and declaring the charter ‘null and void of all validity for ever.’“

“In September 1215, civil war broke out between King John and his barons. The King raised an army of mercenaries to fight his cause, while the barons renounced their allegiance to him, and invited Prince Louis (1187-1226), son of the King of France, to accept the English crown. Louis invaded England in 1216, and England was still at war when John died of dysentery on the night of 18 October 1216.”

“Henry III, who ruled from (1216-72), the eldest son of King John and Isabella of Angoulême, was critically important to the history of Magna Carta, since he issued a revised version of the document in 1225. The 1225 Magna Carta featured 37 clauses instead of the original 63, creating the text confirmed by Edward I (r.1272-1307) in 1297 and enshrined on the first statute roll.”

(Website of the British Museum)


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