The Power of Words #4: Magna Carta

Political documents that lay down our rights are treasured for what they tell us as well as what they give us as a born or adopted member of that country. Magna Carta is celebrating its 800th birthday this year (and not looking a day older!) so it is a topical time to be looking at this remarkable document.

Contrary to popular belief, it was not the first document to determine a legal code for which a government must abide while setting out rights of the citizens or subjects. The first is from ancient Mesopotamia though we have never found the contents of the document itself, there are many references to it. We do have several legal codes from the same region that followed with each successive kingdom.

There were codes in the Greek city-states, Rome had her own legal code and so did some post-Roman and early medieval societies. So why are we so obsessed with Magna Carta? What is it about this document that makes it so important to legal history, not just in England but to the Anglophone world? Why is it so important to the US Constitution?

I’ll come to that, but first let me give you some background information.

The Context of Magna Carta

The term Magna Carta means Great Charter. In 1215, the nobles of England petitioned King John with a number of gripes concerning the nature of rule in England. A very unpopular king, he suffered infighting due to the contradictory nature of governance and his belief that a king was above the law. Initially, a document of clauses was set out – some of which transferred to the later, famous document.

John refused to abide by the first attempt to place limits on his powers and a rebellion broke out. In June 1215, John met with the rebels who presented him with the expanded list of demands that we now know as the first edition of Magna Carta. John agreed to abide by it and truce followed.

But it wasn’t to last. Pope Innocent declared it “illegal and unjust” and John himself reneged on his own agreement before the end of 1215. King John would live for another year while the Barons’ War went on and he was succeeded by the young Henry III. Magna Carta would be at the centre of the storm that followed. Henry’s government attempted to appease the rebels by reissuing the charter, albeit with some clauses removed. Nevertheless, Henry’s government largely embraced it, used it for his own political end and stability returned to the country. The next major milestone of Magna Carta came in 1297.

1297 and Onwards

It is this version from which our most enduring statute laws survive today. Edward I reissued the 1225 version in 1297 with some new clauses as a deal for a new tax. He argued that the barons had gone against the Magna Carta in which they claimed to believe. The 1297 version is the final definitive document.

Edward I had many labels: Hammer of the Scots, tyrant, builder, statesman and politician. Despite that the film Braveheart referred to him as a “Cruel Pagan” – was a Crusader and considered one of the greatest Christian kings of the medieval period. He knew the power of the written law and it is this understanding of the relative meaning of Magna Carta in curbing the power of the monarch that convinced him he could use it for his own personal ends.

In the centuries that followed, it was venerated and vilified in equal measure – being an important document until the beginning of the Tudor period at which time it because politically inconvenient. Yet the growing interest in history of the islands (Henry VIII commissioned John Leland to catalogue the country’s monuments) meant it stayed at the forefront of the law, even while it was being ignored by monarchs.

A King Loses His Head and A Commonwealth Collapses

The early Stuart monarchs came unstuck; the world was changing and the nobility used Magna Carta to challenge the Divine Right of Kings. It may have even played a part in the downfall of Charles I in his refusal to accept a recommission or a new version. He lost his head a few years later, literally.

You would think that Cromwell would have championed what was left of it as part of the legal framework of the Commonwealth, but you’d be wrong. His feelings were quite clear on “Magna Farta”. It was a waste of paper, but he accepted the necessity of a legal code to limit his own power. His Commonwealth didn’t last and before we knew it, England had a king again in the form of Charles II. James II, quite arguably the worst king in England’s history, refused to accept many limits on his power and the man who would be William III was invited over to become joint monarch with his wife Mary II. The monarchy was reforged into a “social contract” of which Magna Carta would be a part, even though most of its clauses were obsolete by this point. At this time, we also saw The English Bill of Rights (I’ll write about this in another post) and together, the new laws set down the rights and duties of the crown and of the rights of the people. Magna Carta was more of a symbol by this point, but symbols can be very powerful.

Today, it is often cited as the foundation of English Law. It isn’t, really, not in terms of itself but certainly some of the themes and traditions that began there have stood the test of time.

Clauses of Interest

Only three remain in force today from 1297. Those that have not become obsolete have been superseded by subsequent laws. Those still standing are:

  • Clause 1: defines the right and freedoms of the English church. Today, we have a state church with the queen at its head, but she does not interfere in its day to day running. Its chief administrator is The Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Clause 13: Determines the rights of “London and all other Boroughs” to self-governance. Boroughs in the 13th century were not divisions of administration as they are today, they were rights exempting them from feudal law. The town had to pay an annual fee for this exemption
  • Clauses 39&40: Though they are two clauses, they are taken together because of their content. They give the right to trial by jury and what we would call today “due process”.
  • As a side note, Clause 38 determines that no Freeman could be put on trial purely on the world of a Royal officer.

All Rights of Magna Carta applied to “free men”. Medieval society had four broad classes of serf:

  1. Slaves were on the very bottom of the pile. They worked the land for the owning farmers. They were not paid a wage and relied on the owner to support them.
  2. Bordars and Cottars also worked the land. Part of his week, he would be working it to feed his family, but for the remaining few days he would work for the owner as a payment for using it
  3. Villeins paid rent on the and any home they lived in. He would often be contractually obliged to work a day or two a week as part of that rent. He may have been subject to other clauses might exist – demand of military service, for example. A villein could own property but could not leave his vassal but if he escaped to a Borough town and stayed there for a year and a day, he would be promoted to a freeman
  4. Freeman was the highest class of serf and was subject to the rights of Magna Carta. They owed no fealty to Feudal Lords and could move away if they wanted to do so. People who lived in Borough Towns were automatically freemen whose only fealty was to the monarch.

800 Years of Magna Carta

Despite that its popularity was on a rollercoaster in its 800-year history, that so many clauses became obsolete very quickly, and those still in use have largely been superseded, Magna Carta stands as a powerful symbol of England’s history. It is also an important document in the foundation of the USA, and though the National Archives wax lyrical about it more than a tad, it is certainly more than likely that the rebelling colonists felt their rights as British subjects were being ignored in the colonies.

2015 is the year of 800 years of Magna Carta. Have a look at the list of events to see whether there is anything going on near you.


3 thoughts on “The Power of Words #4: Magna Carta

  1. Janice Wald

    I found you in the Community Pool. I teach Medieval Times, so I teach about King John and the Magna Carta. Nice to meet you.

    1. Hi janice, welcome to my blog! I studied archaeology here in England and focussed most of my projects (and two dissertations) on elements of the medieval.

      1. Janice Wald

        We have archaeology interest in common

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