By Stuart Wakefield
Magna Carta (also known as the Great Charter) was a ground-breaking document that sought to resolve injustices within the feudal system during the early thirteenth century. It was created by militant English Barons to protect their rights and property from the oppressive monarch, King John. The King reluctantly acceded to their demands in June 1215, which included the establishment of the fundamental principle that all subjects, including the King, are subject to the law, as well guaranteeing rights to justice and a fair trial. However, most of the population were peasants whose lives were irrevocably bound to their Lord who owned the land. Initially, the document did not achieve its aims although it eventually became the foundation of the English system of common law.
King John was an unpopular monarch, although he was not the first to accept a charter that granted concessions to English citizens. In 1100, King Henry I issued a Coronation Charter which committed the monarch to curtail its abuse of power as well as limiting taxes and preventing the confiscation of church revenues. Although Henry failed to fully adhere to his promises, his Barons lacked the resolve to oppose him. Barons were high ranking nobles who ruled large areas of land or ‘fiefs’, and they communicated directly with the King. Their principal function was to maintain an army that was available to serve the King.
Barons were at a lower level of the medieval hierarchy, and King John needed their support, both for the Crusades and to pay a ransom for his brother, Richard the Lionheart, who had been imprisoned by the Germans. The King was entitled to feudal rights that he often abused, which included payments to be made when his eldest daughter married or when land was inherited. He also maintained the right of wardship over heirs who were minors, and he controlled the marriage rights of his tenants’ widows and heirs.
In 1204, the King lost the Duchies of Anjou and Normandy in France, and in 1209 he became the first English King to be excommunicated after a quarrel with Pope Innocent III. In 1213, he suffered further humiliating by the French and needed to restore his standing. His coffers were almost exhausted, and he claimed ‘scutage’ tax, which was paid by Barons who had failed to provide support on the battlefield. By this time, the Pope had nominated Stephen Langton to become Archbishop of Canterbury, despite the King’s opposition, However, he was eventually forced to resolve these differences, and he accepted Langton as well as compensating the Church for revenues that he had plundered.
However, civil war erupted in early 1215, and Baron Robert FitzWalter led a force to wrest control of London. On 15 June 1215, King John was forced to submit at Runneymede, a meadow in Surrey by the River Thames, by placing his seal and thereby accepting the terms of the document laid before him. The manuscript was initially referred to as the ‘Articles of the Barons’ and four days later, after some changes, King John and the Barons issued the formal version that become known as Magna Carta. Clause 61 required the future selection of twenty-five Barons which is why their names were not listed in the document. The number of twenty-five is tied to the Bible, and such legitimisation was meaningful at the time.
The Barons realised that King John could renege on the agreement by arguing that it constituted an unlawful breach of his authority. To counter this possibility, Clause 61 was incorporated which provided a novel solution which the King had accepted that ‘… the Barons shall choose any twenty-five Barons of the realm as they wish, who with all their might are to observe, maintain and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which we have granted’. A violation by either King John or his officials of Magna Carta’s terms was to be reported to four of the committee; and if no remedy was presented within forty days, the King was to empower the full committee to ‘… distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely by seizing castles, lands and possessions …’ until amends were made. Thereby, the charter established the pioneering way of making the King sanction and organise armed action against himself. The means by which such action was to be accomplished was also indicated by use of the common law doctrine of distraint, which was the means whereby debts were collected from debtors and malefactors obliged to answer for their actions in court. The King also shrewdly accepted the Pope as feudal overlord of England, and subsequently, before many of Magna Carta’s terms were fully implemented, he petitioned the Pope to reject the document, which the Pope declared null and void on 24 August 1215.
Civil war flared up again within three months, and after King John’s death in 1216, advisors to his nine-year-old son and successor, Henry III, avoided further conflict by reissuing Magna Carta with some of its most controversial clauses removed, and the document was subsequently reissued in both 1217 and 1225. Magna Carta was written in Latin, (although French was the first language of much of the aristocracy). Many of the 63 clauses defined and limited the King’s authority over the property rights of Barons, which reflected the narrow goals of its authors, and for centuries the benefits only applied to the upper classes. Approximately 250 copies of the “final” 1225 document were produced by scribes, (which inevitably resulted in some minor mistakes), and these were dispatched to legal and religious officials throughout England. The only four original copies of Magna Carta remain in existence, of which two are in the British Museum, one is in Lincoln Cathedral and one is in Salisbury Cathedral.