Magna Carta, or Great Charter, is venerated across the world as the great document of civil rights, ensuring that unjust rule is not permitted. Today the most well known clauses of Magna Carta are 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 judgement 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
These are the basic human rights we enjoy today which ensure that we have the right to a trial by jury, that there has to be a body of evidence against us before we can be detained (Habeas Corpus), and that everyone, no matter how poor, is equal before the law.
Ironically, this was not how Magna Carta was viewed when it was first issued by King John in 1215, and was not even the main purpose of the document.
There have been several re-issues of Magna Carta, in 1216, 1217, and 1225, and each time there were alterations and revisions made. Although issued in 1215, it was not until 1297 when Edward I confirmed the alterations of 1225 that it was placed on the first roll of English statutes or laws.
Background to the sealing of Magna Carta
Magna Carta was the product of a political crisis which saw the monarch in a stalemate with his barons. King John would not have agreed to Magna Carta if he did not have to as its original aim was not to give civil liberties to the people, but to curtail the powers of the King.
Before the sealing of Magna Carta the monarch was free to introduce and increase taxation on a whim, with no restraints. He was also at liberty to seize property and assets as he saw fit, regardless of who they belonged to, and without having to pay compensation for the losses. It was only after the death of King John that is was used as the foundation of human rights.
King John became king in April 1199 on the death of his brother Richard I, at a time when England was at war with France. John was not as adept at battle as his brother and these wars cost him dearly. Most of his land in the Duchy of Normandy was lost and with it went his reputation, and more importantly his source of revenue. The threat of invasion from France was very real and so more soldiers were needed to repel the invaded, and more money needed to pay them. Wars were expensive to undertake and with the loss of his foreign lands John was forced to increase taxes at home to pay for the war effort.
Local Sheriffs made annual payment, known as a farm, to the King. A farm was a compounded payment of all the Crown’s rents and dues from its lands in the English counties. This was a huge sum of money to pay, but they did so because holding the office of Sheriff gave great opportunities for making personal profit.
At this time the Monarch also made money from the judicial system. Fines for wrong doings were payable to the Crown, as well as money given in the hope that there would be a favourable outcome in the king’s courts. Laws governing royal forests also benefited the King who therefore controlled who could hunt in the forests, and received the fines from those who did so illegally.
The Monarch could also benefit from the feudal land tenure system at the time. Before 1215 all land belonged to the Crown and it was rented from the King. There was a system of tenancies and sub tenancies through King, tenants-in-chiefs, through to lesser lords and finally rural peasants (villeins) which had been in existence for centuries. However, John repeatedly breeched the traditional customs in order to obtain more money. John even went as far as to seize land, taking hostages and demanding ransoms, and imprisoning landowners so that he could reclaim the land.
This deprived the Barons and Sheriffs of much of their potential earnings, and so in 1212 there was an assassination attempt on King John. The attempt was unsuccessful, but began the build up to Magna Carta.
By the end of 1214 the barons were in open revolt. They demanded that John confirm the laws of Edward the Confessor and the charter of liberties which had been issued in 1100 by King Henry I. Even the Church was against the king, with Archbishop Stephen Langton encouraging the barons to enforce government within the bounds of English customs. John’s response to this was to spend more money of foreign mercenaries who were used to fortify his castles.
A meeting between King John and the barons was arranged in Northampton in April 1215, but the king did not attend and refused to talk about the barons demands. With no other course of redress, a group of barons met north of Oxford in May 1215, and renounced their allegiances to the King, declaring civil war. John responded by seizing the land of the rebels. When the barons refused to John’s suggestion that the Pope arbitrate, war was the only course of action left.
The barons marched on the capital, capturing the Tower of London which served to attract other barons to join them. Whilst war was raging across England, Archbishop Langton and William Marshal, the king’s representative, were negotiating a truce. It was this that resulted in John and the barons meeting on 10 June 1215 at Runnymede.
The site was chosen as a convenient place between the royal household at Windsor Castle, and the baron’s encampment at Staines. The result was a 49 article document known as the Articles of the Barons. This document established a commission of 25 barons with unprecedented powers to constrain the King and ensure he complied with the established customs. The Article was then further developed and soon superseded by Magna Carta, sealed on 15th June 1215. Four days later formal peace was declared between the barons and the King.
After June 1215
It seems likely that John never intended to be bound by Magna Carta which so severely limited his powers. John was convinced that the Pope would revoke it as it limited his power as well as John’s. In July 1215 John sent an envoy to Pope Innocent III seeking his annulment of the great charter. The Pope duly complied and issued a papal bull to this effect on 24th August, claiming that the charter was unlawful and unjust.
Magna Carta was only legally valid for 10 weeks, and the barons once again took arms against their monarch. In December the rebel barons, disgusted with John, offered the throne of England to Louis, son of the French King Philip Augustus. In May 1216 Prince Louis invaded England and more barons joined the rebels, but arguments soon broke out and some withdrew support almost as soon as they had given it. John, encouraged by the dissent in the rebel camp, headed towards Lincoln and Lynn to rally his forces. It is thought that John contracted dysentery, and on the 18/19th October 1216 King John died suddenly.
By October that year Magna Carta had been overturned by the Pope, the King was dead and his son and heir, Henry III, was only 9 years old and therefore too young to rule independently. William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, was appointed governor until Henry was of age. In November 1216 Marshal reissued Magna Carta, followed by another revision in November 1217.
Other reissues took place until 1297 when the text of 1225 reissued was copied on to first statute roll and became officially incorporated in to English law. The Charter had to be read in county courts and in all cathedrals twice a year and it was routinely read at the opening of each parliament. By the middle of the 14th century the clause regarding the “the lawful judgement of peers” had been interpreted as the right to trial by peers, or trial by jury as it is today. It was in the 17th century that lawyers argued that Magna Carta set down fundamental principles of law that stated that the monarch was subject to the law like anyone else.
It is this 17th century interpretation of the great charter that has resulted in its fame today. It is now seen as the first guarantee of basic civil liberties and freedom for all under the law. There are references to Magna Carta in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, and in December 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human rights, based on Magna Carta.
The document is not an issue of human rights; indeed most of the clauses are there solely to benefit the Church and the highest ranks of English society.
The first clause grants freedom of the English Church from monarchical interference. It reaffirms the right of the Church, not the monarch, to elect bishops and other officials. This was not included in the original Articles of the Barons, but was introduced on the insistence of Archbishop Langton.
The majority of the remaining clauses concentrate on the royal abuse of feudal customs, and what redress would be permitted should this happen again. The king was no longer permitted to seize land and assets at will. Although a fee still had to be paid to the king in order to inherit property, that fee was at a fixed rate depending on status and could not be altered by the King at will.
It was only after the freedom of the Church had been assured, the legal grievances of the barons had been addressed, and the barons given the right to seize Crown property if the king did not comply that Magna Carta’s most famous clauses were included. Clauses 30 and 40 prohibited the king from imprisoning, exiling or using force against any free man except by the lawful judgement of his peers.
Magna Carta was not law; rather it was a working document that set out the legal position of the barons. It did not address the concerns of the bulk of the population who were peasants.
There is no one original copy of Magna Carta; rather there were many copies of the document issued at the same time which were distributed around the country for all to see. Today there are only 4 copies still in existence, one held in Salisbury Cathedral, one in Lincoln Cathedral and two in the British Library.
The King’s Seal
The document was written on parchment made from sheepskin soaked in a bath of lime, stretched over a frame to dry, and scraped with a lunular (crescent shaped knife) to make the surface smooth. The ink was a mix of iron salts with a caustic liquid extracted from galls on oak trees; it was hand-written in abbreviated Latin. There is no evidence that John could write, although he was able to read, but as with other medieval charters it was not signed. Instead it was authenticated by a seal rather than a signature.
John’s seal was made from beeswax and resin and was attached to the charter by a plaited cord. It measured 95mm in diameter and showed, on the front, the king on his throne holding a sword and orb as symbols of his power and majesty. On the reverse there is an image of the king on horseback, preparing for battle. Only one of the four remaining copies has its seal, but it was unfortunately damaged in a fire and has been reduced to a shapeless lump of wax.