Over 800 years after the sealing of Magna Carta, we examine the significance of the charter, which lay down the foundations for civil liberties across the world.
What is Magna Carta?
Forced upon King John by rebel barons in 1215, Magna Carta has been hailed as the greatest constitutional document of all time and a keystone of English liberty, law and democracy. Its principles have served as an inspiration for democratic institutions around the world and it has become a global symbol of human rights and freedom from oppression.
Those are certainly heady claims, especially as the charter was never intended to be some lofty declaration of enduring legal principle. It was simply thrashed out as a practical solution to squabbles between a greedy king and the disgruntled barons who stood just below him in the pecking order of medieval society. It was a charter that primarily served the vested interests of the higher ranks of feudal life.
Well before the barons’ dispute with King John, England’s monarchs had agreed to safeguard certain rights and liberties of their people. There’s even a written precursor to Magna Carta in King Henry I’s Coronation Charter of 1100 relating to the privileges of clergy and nobles, designed to make up for abuses of royal power by King Henry’s predecessor, King William II.
Unfortunately, subsequent rulers conveniently forgot that charter, with King John in particular exhibiting extreme amnesia. Ascending the throne in 1199, he embarked on a reign of tyranny and oppression, and pursued a disastrous foreign policy, which led to him being labelled one of England’s most villainous monarchs.
He angered the barons by levying severe taxes to boost his income, including excessive ‘scutage’ – a tax in lieu of military service. He opposed the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, offended the Pope and was subsequently excommunicated.
Matters came to a head in 1215 when the barons rebelled. Outmanoeuvred and playing for time, King John agreed to negotiations. The barons, with Archbishop Langton as one of the leading mediators, gathered for a showdown on 10 June 1215 in the ancient ‘meeting meadow’ at Runnymede, Surrey, beside the River Thames, not far from Windsor Castle.
Coerced by demands to stop riding roughshod over lawful customs, the king grudgingly granted Magna Carta – or the Charter of Liberties, as it was then known – on 15 June. Four days later the barons made peace with him by renewing their oaths of allegiance, and on 24 June the first hastily prepared copies of the charter (complete with spelling mistakes) were given the king’s seal and rushed out for distribution to sheriffs and bishops around the kingdom.
What does the Magna Carta say?
Most of the charter’s 63 clauses focused on the nitty-gritty of contemporary feudal issues and the interests of particular parties: regulating scutage, dealing with fines, royal forests, the behaviour of royal officials, freedom of movement of merchants, and the standardisation of wine, ale and corn measures.
Then, buried halfway through, we find clauses 39 and 40:
“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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
In June 1215 these guarantees of justice and freedom from unwarranted imprisonment were given no particular prominence, but their interpretation as enduring principles would resonate through the centuries and around the globe.
The charter had also established that the law was a power in its own right – and significantly that the sovereign was not above the law. It decreed that 25 barons be elected to ensure the king’s compliance, with power to seize his property if he failed to stick to the charter’s terms.
However, even before the parchment was dry, King John ignored his promises. Pope Innocent III, now reconciled with the king, also declared the charter null and void because it had been obtained under duress. Thus began the first of the Barons’ Wars (1215 to 1217), which, although John died in 1216, ended in royalist victory.
The Charter of Liberties was revised and reissued in 1216, 1217 and 1225 in attempts to stabilise King Henry III’s reign – John’s son was just nine years old when he inherited the crown. After 1217, the name Magna Carta – the Great Charter – was used, when clauses covering the law of the royal forest were added into a separate and shorter Charter of the Forest.
The Barons’ Wars erupted again from 1264 to 1267, with victory for Henry, but not before the barons’ charismatic leader Simon de Montfort (later killed in battle) called a parliament in 1265. This is seen as an early forerunner of our modern Parliament because it included borough representatives.
In 1297 King Edward I confirmed Henry’s 1225 Magna Carta and the text was entered on the statute roll. Three clauses remain valid to this day: defending the freedom and rights of the English Church; confirming the liberties and customs of the City of London and other towns and ports; and guaranteeing freedom from imprisonment except by the judgment of one’s peers or the law of the land.
Magna Carta may have begun as a charter that addressed the concerns of the higher ranks and ignored the majority of 13th century society – the ‘unfree peasants or villeins’ – but in the long term its key concepts took on a life of their own. Whenever sovereigns exceeded their powers, or due process of law was threatened, the Great Charter could be reinterpreted and invoked as a rallying cry.