Magna Carta, the “Great Charter,” celebrates its 800th Anniversary today. Drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and a cadre of the most powerful barons of England, Magna Carta was sealed by King John to end a civil war between the Roman Catholic Church, the King and most of his barons, who had come and occupied London to press their grievances.
But what compelling issue forced the English monarch to accept the terms of what essentially was a peace treaty with his feudal barons?
John, the favorite son of King Henry II, was reportedly one to engage in youthful political indiscretions, which allowed his brother Richard, later referred to as Coeur de Lion (“Richard the Lionhearted”), to gain his father’s favor and eventually ascend to the throne.
Although comfortably set up with extensive lands outside of England and revenues, when Richard, now king, was returning from his Third Crusade and imprisoned in 1194 by the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany, John broke his oath to not enter England during Richard’s absence. Not only did John break his oath to Richard, but he did so by aligning with King Phillip II of France and attempted, unsuccessfully, to seize control of England. Upon his release from the German prison and return to England, Richard banished John from England. By May 1195, Richard and John had reconciled.
Upon Richard’s death, John ascended to the English throne in 1199, had his marriage to his first wife annulled and promptly married the fiancée of a French baron, leading to a war with France and the resulting loss of Normandy and other French provinces by the English.
Recognizing that he had been bested by the French, John turned his attention to domestic matters, including severely enhanced taxation and collection efforts, investigations into the use of the royal forests, special taxation of Jews and the Catholic Church’s property and buildings, an exhaustive inquiry into feudal tenures, and the ever-increasing exploitation of his feudal prerogatives. Taken together, these actions provided the basis at the time by both the commoners and the landed gentry to consider that King John was a tyrant.
In 1214, John again entered into a war with France, only to return to England that same year with nothing of substance ceded by the French. Upon his return to England, discontent from the English populace boiled over into civil war, leading to the occupation of London in May 1215 by what are referred to as the “rebels.” To put an end to the civil war, King John met at Runnymede (beside the River Thames, between Windsor and Staines, in the county of Surrey) with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and a majority of the English barons to affix his seal to what was then referred to as the Articles of the Barons and is now referred to as Magna Carta.
Although sealed by the King of England, what set Magna Carta apart from earlier charters was that the precursors were voluntarily granted by, and not exacted from, the King. Leading the charge for change was Langton, who demanded a solemn grant of liberties for all Englishmen, both freeholders and those who were not free.
While great reverence is made to Magna Carta, just like our own United States Constitution, it was subsequently amended. The first time was on June 19, 1215, just four days after King John initially sealed it as well as in 1216, 1217 and 1225.
Written in Latin, the Magna Carta is not broken into sections as perhaps would be the case today, but consists of a preamble and clauses addressing roughly nine distinct subjects. The first topic addressed the Roman Catholic Church, stating that it was to be “free.” A second theme dealt with feudal law and those holding lands directly from the King, while the third topic ensured similar rights to subtenants holding lands. The fourth category addressed towns, trade and merchants, in which the concept of fair trade and fair dealing were memorialized.
Of course, legal reform, the reason why Magna Carta is held in such high regard in democratic countries, made up a substantial portion of the document.
Most important was the right not to be seized or imprisoned and to have a trial by jury without delay. Also ensured was the right to have judicial officials know the law and swear to observe it.
Separation of church and state, part of our First Amendment, has its genesis in Magna Carta delineating the jurisdiction of the King’s courts to try actions at law, with the church having the purview of trying cases sounding in equity, an outgrowth of the ecclesiastical courts.
The holding of court in criminal matters in the county or district in which the offense took place was guaranteed. Furthermore, a constable or bailiff could not expropriate property of another without then paying for it.
The right not to have property seized for payment of debt if other property is sufficient is enshrined in Magna Carta, as is the right of sureties (guarantors) to not be compelled to pay if the principal has satisfied a debt, but if compelled to so pay the debt, the surety has recourse against the principal’s lands and rents.
Also addressed was the behavior of the royal officials and, separately, the royal forests.
The last two topics of Magna Carta addressed issues of immediate concern, such as termination of King John’s foreign mercenaries and provisions for ensuring adherence of the monarch to the Charter. To that end, a council of 23 barons had the power to levy war upon the King should Magna Carta be materially infringed.
In the United States, Magna Carta is considered one of the foundations of our own federal Constitution and its Bill of Rights and many, if not all, state constitutions. Numerous concepts set forth in Magna Carta have found a home in our Bill of Rights and in other democraticallygoverned countries’ constitutions.
Perhaps forgotten by most, maybe held in the utmost reverence by a few, Magna Carta most importantly created the rule of law: a monarch agreed that he, too, would be held accountable to his subjects. Without such a pronouncement then, who could predict that we would have developed our nation, our society, the same, better or worse without it?
It has been 800 years, and Magna Carta is still spoken about, referred to and celebrated. It truly was revolutionary.