(Latin for "Great Charter", literally "Great Paper"), also
called Magna Carta Libertatum
("Great Charter of Freedoms"), is an
English charter originally issued in 1215. Magna Carta was the most significant
early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of
constitutional law today. Magna Carta influenced many common law and other
documents, such as the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, and is
considered one of the most important legal documents in the history of
Magna Carta was originally written because of disagreements between
Pope Innocent III, King John and his English barons about the rights of the
King. Magna Carta required the king to renounce certain rights, respect certain
legal procedures and accept that the will of the king could be bound by the law.
It explicitly protected certain rights of the King's subjects - whether free or
unfree - most notably the right of Habeas Corpus, meaning that they had rights
against unlawful imprisonment. Many clauses were renewed throughout the Middle
Ages, and further during the Tudor and Stuart periods, and the 17th and 18th
centuries. By the early 19th century most clauses in their original form had
been repealed from English law.
1215: The Year of
Magna Carta By Danny Danziger, John Gillingham
15 June 1215, rebel barons forced King John to meet them at Runnymede. They did
not trust the King, so he was not allowed to leave until his seal was attached
to the charter in front of him. This work explores what it was like to be alive
in that momentous year"
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Visit in Britain
"From castles, cathedrals, stately homes and natural wonders to power stations, bellfoundries
and even a water tower, this book reflects the diversity of places that Britain
has to offer"
There are a number of popular misconceptions about Magna Carta, such as that
it was the first document to limit the power of an English king by law (it was
not the first, and was partly based on the Charter of Liberties); that it in
practice limited the power of the king (it mostly did not in the Middle Ages);
and that it is a single static document (it is a variety of documents referred
to under a common name).
Events leading to Magna Carta
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and advances in the 12th
century, the English king had by 1199 become the most powerful monarch in
Europe. This was due to a number of factors including the sophisticated
centralised government created by the procedures of the new Anglo-Saxon systems
of governance, and extensive Anglo-Norman land holdings in Normandy. But after
King John of England was crowned in the early 13th century, a series of stunning
failures on his part led the English barons to revolt and place checks on the
King John's actions in France were a major cause of discontent in the realm.
At the time of his accession to the throne after Richard's death, there were no
set rules to define the line of succession. King John, as Richard's younger
brother, was crowned over Richard's nephew, Arthur of Brittany. As Arthur still
had a claim over the Anjou empire, however, John needed the approval of the
French king, Philip Augustus. To get it, John gave to Philip vast tracts of the
French-speaking Anjou territories.
When John later married Isabella of Angoulême, her previous fiancé (Hugh IX
of Lusignan, one of John's vassals) appealed to Philip, who then declared
forfeit all of John's French lands, including the rich Normandy. Philip declared
Arthur as the true ruler of the Anjou throne and invaded John's French holdings
in mid-1202 to give it to him. John had to act to save face, but his eventual
actions did not achieve this—he ended up killing Arthur in suspicious
circumstances, thus losing the little support he had from his French barons.
After the defeat of John's allies at the Battle of Bouvines, Philip retained
all of John's northern French territories, including Normandy (although
Aquitaine remained in English hands for a time). As a result, John was revealed
as a weak military leader, and one who lost to the French a major source of
income, neither of which made him popular at home. Worse, to recoup his
expenses, John had to further tax the already unhappy barons.
At the time of John’s reign there was still a great deal of controversy as to
how the Archbishop of Canterbury was to be elected, although it had become
traditional that the monarch would appoint a candidate with the approval of the
monks of Canterbury.
But in the early 13th century, the bishops began to want a say. To retain
control, the monks elected one of their number to the role. But John, incensed
at his lack of involvement in the proceedings, sent the Bishop of Norwich to
Rome as his choice. Pope Innocent III declared both choices as invalid and
persuaded the monks to elect Stephen Langton, who in fact was probably the best
But John refused to accept this choice and exiled the monks from the realm.
Infuriated, Innocent ordered an interdict (prevention of public worship - mass,
marriages, the ringing of church bells, etc.) in England in 1208, excommunicated
John in 1209, and backed Philip to invade England in 1212.
John finally backed down and agreed to endorse Langton and allow the exiles
to return, and to completely placate the pope, he gave England and Ireland as
papal territories and rented them back as a fiefdom for 1,000 marks per annum.
This further enraged the barons as it meant that they had even less autonomy in
their own lands.
Despite all this, England's government could not function without a strong
king. The efficient civil service, established by the powerful King Henry II,
had run England throughout the reign of Richard I. But the government of King
John needed money for armies, for during this period of prosperity mercenary
soldiers cost nearly twice as much as before.
The loss of the French territories, especially Normandy, greatly reduced the
state income and a huge tax would have to be raised in order to attempt to
reclaim these territories. Yet it was difficult to raise taxes due to the
tradition of keeping them at the same level.
Novel forms of income included a Forest law, a set of regulations about the
king’s forest which were easily broken and severely punished. John also
increased the pre-existing scutage (feudal payment to an overlord replacing
direct military service) eleven times in his seventeen years as king, as
compared to eleven times in twice that period covering three monarchs before
him. The last two of these increases were double the increase of their
predecessors. He also imposed the first income tax which raised to what was, at
the time, the extortionate sum of £60,000.
Rebellion and civil war
By 1215, some of the barons of England banded together and took London by
force on June 10, 1215. They, and many of the fence-sitting moderates not in
overt rebellion, forced King John to agree to the "Articles of the Barons", to
which his Great Seal was attached in the meadow at Runnymede on June 15, 1215.
In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John on June 19,
1215. A formal document to record the agreement was created by the royal
chancery on July 15: this was the original Magna Carta. An unknown number of
copies of it were sent out to officials, such as royal sheriffs and bishops.
John of England signs Magna Carta—illustration from Cassell's History
of England (1902)
The most significant clause for King John at the time was clause 61, known as
the "security clause", the longest portion of the document. This established a
committee of 25 barons who could at any time meet and over-rule the will of the
King, through force by seizing his castles and possessions if needed. This was
based on a medieval legal practice known as distraint, which was commonly
done, but it was the first time it had been applied to a monarch. In addition,
the King was to take an oath of loyalty to the committee.
King John had no intention to honour Magna Carta
as it was sealed under extortion by force, and clause 61 essentially neutered
his power as a monarch, making him King in name only. He renounced it as soon as
the barons left London, plunging England into a civil war, called the First
Barons' War. Pope Innocent III also annulled the "shameful and demeaning
agreement, forced upon the king by violence and fear." He rejected any call for
rights, saying it impaired King John's dignity. He saw it as an affront to the
Church's authority over the king and released John from his oath to obey it.
Magna Carta re-issued
John died during the war, from dysentery, on October 18, 1216, and this
quickly changed the nature of the war. His nine-year-old son, Henry III, was
next in line for the throne. The royalists believed the rebel barons would find
the idea of loyalty to the child Henry more palatable, so the boy was swiftly
crowned in late October 1216 and the war ended.
Henry's regents reissued Magna Carta in his name on November 12, 1216,
omitting some clauses, such as clause 61, and again in 1217. When he turned 18
in 1225, Henry III himself reissued Magna Carta again, this time in a shorter
version with only 37 articles.
Henry III ruled for 56 years (the longest reign of an English Monarch in the
Medieval period) so that by the time of his death in 1272, Magna Carta had
become a settled part of English legal precedent, and more difficult for a
future monarch to annul as King John had attempted nearly three generations
Henry III's son and heir Edward I's Parliament reissued Magna Carta for the
final time on 12 October 1297 as part of a statute called Confirmatio
cartarum (25 Edw. I), reconfirming Henry III's shorter version of Magna
Carta from 1225.
Content of Magna Carta
The Magna Carta was originally written in Latin. A large part of Magna Carta
was copied, nearly word for word, from the Charter of Liberties of Henry I,
issued when Henry I ascended to the throne in 1100, which bound the king to
certain laws regarding the treatment of church officials and nobles, effectively
granting certain civil liberties to the church and the English nobility.
Rights still in force today
For modern times, the most enduring legacy of the Magna Carta is considered
the right of Habeas Corpus. This right arises from what we now call Clauses 36,
38, 39, and 40 of the 1215 Magna Carta.
The impact of the Magna Carta worldwide is great in its influence, for
example on US and Commonwealth law. The following material refers to UK law and
stands apart from a broader appreciation of the wider impact of the Magna Carta.
Three clauses of the 1297 version of Magna Carta still remain in force in
current English law. Clause 1 guarantees the freedom of the English Church.
Although this originally meant freedom from the King, later in history it was
used for different purposes (see below). Clause 9 guarantees the “ancient
liberties” of the city of London. Clause 29 guarantees a right to due process.
- I. FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have
confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be
free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. We have
granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs
for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their
Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever.
- IX. THE City of London shall have all the old Liberties and Customs which it
hath been used to have. Moreover We will and grant, that all other Cities,
Boroughs, Towns, and the Barons of the Five Ports, and all other Ports, shall
have all their Liberties and free Customs.
- XXIX. NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his
Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other
wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful
judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we
will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. UK Statute Law
The repeal of clause 26 in 1829 (by 9 Geo. 4 c. 31 s. 1) was the first time a
clause of Magna Carta was repealed. With the document's perceived protected
status broken, in one hundred and fifty years nearly the whole charter was
repealed, leaving just Clauses 1, 9, and 29 still in force after 1969. Most of
it was repealed in England and Wales by the Statute Law Revision Act 1863, and
in Ireland by the Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872.
Feudal rights still in place in 1225
These clauses were present in the 1225 charter but are no longer in force,
and would have no real place in the post-feudal world. Clauses 2 to 7 refer to
the feudal death duties; defining the amounts and what to do if an heir to a
fiefdom is underage or is a widow. Clause 23 provides no town or person should
be forced to build a bridge across a river. Clause 33 demands the removal of all
fish weirs. Clause 43 gives special provision for tax on reverted estates and
Clause 44 states that forest law should only apply to those in the King’s
Feudal rights not in the 1225 charter
These provisions have no bearing in the world today, as they are feudal
rights, and were not even included in the 1225 charter. Clauses 9 to 12, 14 to
16, and 25 to 26 deal with debt and taxes and Clause 27 with intestacy.
The other clauses state that no one may seize land in debt except as a last
resort, that underage heirs and widows should not pay interest on inherited
loans, that county rents will stay at their ancient amounts and that the crown
may only seize the value owed in payment of a debt, that aid (taxes for warfare
or other emergency) must be reasonable, and that scutage (literally,
shield-payment, payment in lieu of actual military service used to finance
warfare) may only be sought with the consent of the kingdom.
These clauses were not present in the 1225 document, but still this led to
the first parliament. Clause 14 provided that the common consent of the kingdom
was to be sought from a council of the archbishops, bishops, earls and greater
Barons. This later became the great council (see below).
Judicial rights (also in 1225 Charter)
These rights were the beginning of English judicial rights. Clauses 17 to 22
allowed for a fixed law court, which became the chancellery, and defines the
scope and frequency of county assizes. They also said that fines should be
proportionate to the offence, that they should not be influenced by
ecclesiastical property in clergy trials, and that people should be tried by
their peers. Many think that this gave rise to jury and magistrate trial, but
its only manifestation in the modern world was the right of a Lord to a criminal
trial in the House of Lords at first instance (abolished in 1948).
Clause 24 states that crown officials (such as sheriffs) may not try a crime
in place of a judge. Clause 34 forbids repossession without a writ precipe.
Clauses 36 to 38 state that writs for loss of life or limb are to be free, that
someone may use reasonable force to secure their own land and that no one can be
tried on their own testimony alone.
Clauses 36, 38, 39 and 40 collectively defined the right of Habeas Corpus.
Clause 36 required courts to make inquiries as to the whereabouts of a prisoner,
and to do so without charging any fee. Clause 38 required more than the mere
word of an official, before any person could be put on trial. Clause 39 gave the
courts exclusive rights to punish anyone. Clause 40 disallowed the selling or
the delay of justice. Clauses 36 and 38 were removed from the 1225 version, but
were reinstated in later versions. The right of Habeas Corpus as such, was first
invoked in court in the year 1305.
Clause 54 says that no man may be imprisoned on the testimony of a woman
except on the death of her husband.
Anti-corruption and fair trade (also in 1225
Clauses 28 to 32 say that no royal officer may take any commodity such as
corn, wood or transport without payment or consent or force a knight to pay for
something the knight could do himself and that the king must return any lands
confiscated from a felon within a year and a day.
Clause 25 sets out a list of standard measures and Clauses 41 and 42
guarantee the safety and right of entry and exit of foreign merchants.
Clause 45 says that the king should only appoint royal officers where they
are suitable for the post.
Clause 46 provides for the guardianship of monasteries.
Seal of John I of England on original Magna Carta
These provisions were for immediate effect, and were not in any later
charter. Clauses 47 and 48 abolish most of Forest Law. Clauses 49, 52 to 53 and
55 to 59 provide for the return of hostages, land and fines taken in John’s
Article 50 says that no member of the D’Athèe family may be a royal officer.
Article 51 called for all foreign knights and mercenaries to leave the realm.
Articles 60, 62 and 63 provide for the application and observation of the
Charter and say that the Charter is binding on the Kings and his heirs forever,
but this was soon deemed to be dependent on each succeeding King reaffirming the
Charter under his own seal.
The document commonly known as Magna Carta today is not the 1215 charter, but
a later charter of 1225, and is usually shown in the form of The Charter of 1297
when it was confirmed by Edward I. At the time of the 1215 charter many of the
provisions were not meant to make long term changes but simply to right the
immediate wrongs, and therefore The Charter was reissued three times in the
reign of Henry III (1216, 1217 and 1225) in order to provide for an updated
version. After this each individual king for the next two hundred years (until
Henry V in 1416) personally confirmed the 1225 charter in their own charter.
Magna Carta had little effect on subsequent development of parliament until
the Tudor period. Knights and county representatives attended the Great Council
(Simon de Montfort’s Parliament), and the council became far more representative
under the model parliament of Edward I which included two knights from each
county, two burgesses from each borough and two citizens from each city. The
Commons separated from the Lords in 1341. The right of the Commons to
exclusively sanction taxes (based on a withdrawn provision of Magna Carta) was
re-asserted in 1407, although it was not in force in this period. The power
vested in the Great Council by, albeit withdrawn, Clause 14 of Magna Carta
became vested in the House of Commons but Magna Carta was all but forgotten for
about a century, until the Tudors.
The first long-term constitutional effect arose from Clauses 14 and 61, which
permitted a Council comprised of the most powerful men in the country, to exist
for the benefit of the state rather than in allegiance to the monarch. Members
of the Council were also allowed to renounce their oath of allegiance to the
king in pressing circumstances, and to pledge allegiance to the Council and not
to the king in certain instances. The common council was responsible for
taxation and, although it was not representative, its members were bound by
decisions made in their absence. The common council, later called the Great
Council, was England's proto-parliament.
The Great Council only existed to give input on the opinion of the kingdom as
a whole, and only had power to control scutage until 1258 when Henry III got
into debt fighting in Sicily for the pope. The Barons agreed to a tax in
exchange for reform, leading to the Provisions of Oxford. But Henry got a papal
bull allowing him to set aside the provisions and in 1262 told royal officers to
ignore the provisions and only to obey Magna Carta. The Barons revolted and
seized the Tower of London, the Cinque ports and Gloucester. Initially the king
surrendered, but when Louis IX (of France) arbitrated in favor of Henry, Henry
crushed the rebellion. Later he ceded somewhat, passing the Statute of
Marlborough in 1267 which allowed writs for breaches of Magna Carta to be free
of charge, enabling anyone to have standing to apply the Charter.
This secured the position of the Council forever, but its powers were still
very limited. The Council originally only met three times a year, and so was
subservient to the king’s council, Curiae Regis, who, unlike the Great Council,
followed the king wherever he went.
Still, in some senses the council was an early form of parliament. It had the
power to meet outside the authority of the king, and was not appointed by him.
While executive government descends from the Curiae Regis, parliament descends
from the Great Council which was later called the parliamentum. Still,
the Great Council was very different from modern parliament. There were no
knights, let alone commons, and it was composed of the most powerful men, rather
Quotes from the Magna Carta
- Neither we nor our officials will seize any land or rent in payment of a
debt, so long as the debtor has movable goods sufficient to discharge the debt.
- No man shall be forced to perform more service for a knight's 'fee', or
other free holding of land, than is due from it.
- For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the
degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so
heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood.
- No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods
from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers
postponement of this.
The Magna Carta was the first entry on the statute books, but after 1472, it
was not mentioned for a period of nearly 100 years. There was much ignorance
about the document. The few who did know about the document spoke of a good king
being forced by an unstable pope and rebellious Barons “to attaine the shadow of
seeming liberties” and that it was a product of a wrongful rebellion against the
one true authority, the king. The original Magna Carta was seen as an ancient
document with shadowy origins, and as having no bearing on the Tudor world.
Shakespeare’s King John makes no mention of the Charter at all, but
focuses on the murder of Arthur. The Charter in the statute books was thought to
have arisen from the reign of Henry III.
First uses of the charter as a bill of rights
This statute was used widely in the reign of Henry VIII, but apparently it
was seen as no more special than any other statute, and could be amended and
removed. But later in the reign, the Lord Treasurer stated in the Star Chamber
that many had lost their lives in the Baronial wars fighting for the liberties,
which were guaranteed by the Charter, and therefore it should not so easily be
overlooked as a simple and regular statute.
The church often attempted to invoke the first clause of the Charter to
protect itself from the attacks by Henry, but this claim was given no credence.
Francis Bacon was the first to try to use Clause 39 to guarantee due process in
Although the early Tudor period saw a re-awakening of the use of Magna Carta
in common law, it was not seen, as it was later, as an entrenched set of
liberties guaranteed for the people against the Crown and Government. Rather, it
was a normal statute which gave a certain level of liberties, most of which
could not be relied on, least of all against the King. Therefore the Charter had
little effect on the governance of the early Tudor period. Although lay
parliament evolved from the Charter, by this stage the powers of parliament had
managed to exceed those humble beginnings. The Charter had no real effect until
the Elizabethan age.
Reintepretation of the charter
In the Elizabethan age, England was becoming the most powerful force in
Europe and so pride became a primary force in academia; thus earnest - but
futile - attempts were made to prove that Parliament had Roman origins. The
events at Runnymede were "re-discovered" in 1215, allowing a possibility to show
the antiquity of Parliament, and Magna Carta became synonymous with the idea of
an ancient house with origins in Roman government.
The Charter was interpreted as an attempt to return to a pre-Norman state of
things. The Tudors saw the Charter as proof that their state of governance had
existed since time immemorial and the Normans had been a brief break from this
liberty and democracy. This claim is disputed in certain circles, but explains
how Magna Carta came to be regarded as such an important document.
Magna Carta again occupied legal minds, and it again began to shape how that
government was run. Soon the Charter was seen as an immutable entity. In the
trial of Arthur Hall for questioning the antiquity of the house, one of his
alleged crimes was an attack on Magna Carta.
Edward Coke’s opinions
One of the first respected jurists to write seriously about the great charter
was Edward Coke (1552 - 1634), who had a great deal to say on the subject and
was hugely influential in the way Magna Carta was perceived throughout the Tudor
and Stuart periods, although his opinions changed across time and his writing in
the Stuart period was more influential; that will be discussed below. In the
Elizabethan period Coke wrote of Parliament evolving alongside the monarchy and
not existing due to any allowance on the part of the monarch. However he was
still fiercely loyal to Elizabeth and the monarchy still judged the Charter in
the same light it always had, an evil document forced out of their forefathers
by brute force; he therefore prevented a re-affirmation of the charter from
passing the House, and although he spoke highly of the charter, he did not speak
out against imprisonments without due process — actions which came back to haunt
him later, when he moved for a reaffirmation of the charter himself.
Coke’s opinions were so confused because the people in that era were confused
about how to treat the charter. The Petition of Right in 1628 was meant as a
reaffirmation of the charter, but was defeated by the Attorney General (Robert
Heath). He stated that the petition claimed it was a mere codification of
existing law stemming from Magna Carta, but, he claimed, there was no precedent
shown as to these laws existing in such as a way as they bound the present king;
there was a definite feeling that the king could not be bound by law and
therefore Clause 39 and all others did not apply to him. The charter was seen as
important as a statement as to the antiquity of Parliament; not, as could
rightfully be claimed, because it was the catalyst to the genesis of Parliament
but instead of Parliament being pre-Norman. Again, this latter point is disputed
by certain modern critics. The Charter was seen in part as entrenched law due to
Coke's opinon and no one would dare deny it, but it most certainly was not seen
as binding on the king. Such suggestions were impermissible until the Stuart
Magna Carta’s role in the lead-up to the Civil War
By the time of the Stuarts, Magna Carta had attained an almost mythical
status for its admirers and was seen as representing a ‘golden age’ of English
liberties extant prior to the Norman invasion. Whether or not this 'golden age'
ever truly existed is open to debate; regardless, proponents of its application
to English law saw themselves as leading England back to a pre-Norman state of
affairs. What is true, however is that this age existed in the hearts and minds
of the people of the time. Magna Carta was not important because of the
liberties it bestowed, but simply as ‘proof’ of what had come before; many great
minds influentially exalted the Charter; by the Seventeenth Century, Coke was
talking of the Charter as an indispensable method of limiting the powers of the
Crown, a popular principle in the Stuart period where the kings were proclaiming
their divine right and were looking, in the minds of their subjects at least,
towards becoming absolute monarchs.
Jurist Edward Coke interpreted Magna Carta to apply not only to the protection
of nobles but to all subjects of the crown equally. He famously asserted: "Magna
Carta is such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign."
It was not the content of the Charter which has made it so important in the
history of England, but far more how it has been perceived in the popular mind.
This is something which certainly started in the Stuart period, as The Charter
represented many things which are not to be found in the Charter itself, firstly
that it could be used to claim liberties against the Government in general
rather than just the Crown and the officers of the crown as discussed above,
secondly that it represented that the laws and liberties of England,
specifically Parliament, dated back to a time immemorial and thirdly, that it
was not only just but right to usurp a King who disobeyed the law.
For the last of these reasons Magna Carta began to represent a danger to the
Monarchy; Elizabeth ordered that Coke stop a bill from going through Parliament,
which would have reaffirmed the validity of the Charter and Charles I ordered
the suppression of a book which Coke intended to write on Magna Carta. By this
stage, the powers of Parliament were growing, and on Coke’s death parliament
ordered his house to be searched; the manuscripts were recovered and the book
was published in 1642 (at the end of Charles I's Eleven Years Tyranny).
Parliament began to see Magna Carta as its best way of claiming supremacy over
the crown, and began to preach that they were the sworn defenders of the
liberties - fundamental and immemorial - which were to be found in the Charter.
In the four centuries since the Charter had originally catered for their
creation, Parliament’s power had increased greatly from their original level
where they existed only for the purpose that the king had to seek their
permission in order to raise scutage. Now they were the only body allowed to
raise tax, a right, which although descended from the 1215 Great Charter was no
longer guaranteed by it, as it was removed from the 1225 edition. Parliament had
now got so powerful that the Charter was at that time being used for two
purposes with Parliament as a new organ of the Crown by those wishing to limit
Parliament’s power, and as a set of principles Parliament was sworn to defend
against the King by those wishing to rival the power of the king with
Parliament’s power. When it became obvious that people wished to limit the power
of Parliament by claiming it to be tantamount to the crown, Parliament claimed
they had the sole right of interpretation of the Charter.
This was a hugely important step, for the first time Parliament was claiming
itself a body as above the law; whereas one of the fundamental principles in
English law was that all were held by the law; Parliament, the monarch and the
church, albeit to very different extents. Parliament here were claiming exactly
what Magna Carta wanted to prevent the King from claiming, a claim of not being
subject to any higher form of power. This was not claimed until ten years after
the death of Lord Coke, but he most certainly would not have agreed with this,
as he claimed in the English Constitution the law was supreme and all bodies of
government were subservient to the supreme law; the common law, embodied in the
Great Charter. These early discussions of Parliament sovereignty seemed to only
involve the Charter as the entrenched law, and the discussions were simply about
whether or not Parliament had enough power to repeal the document or not. This
debate was not as important as it may seem, for although it was important for
Parliament to be able to claim a great deal of power, as they could foresee that
war was brewing and that very soon they have to claim themselves as more
powerful than the King himself, this very provision was provided for by the
Charter itself. Clause 61 of The Charter enables people to swear allegiance to
what became the Great Council and later Parliament and therefore to renounce
allegiance to the King. Moreover, Clause 61 allowed for the seizing of the
kingdom by the body which was later to become Parliament if Magna Carta was not
respected by the King or Lord Chief Justice. In which case there was no need to
show any novel level of power in order to overthrow the King; it had already
been set out in Magna Carta nearly half a millennium before hand. However,
Parliament was not simply seeking for a justification to overthrow the monarch,
they were seeking to establish themselves as the true and sovereign government
of the United Kingdom and for this they need to show they could overrule Magna
Carta. However Parliament was not ready to repeal the Charter yet, they would
need it in order to war against the King, and in fact was cited as the reason
why ship-money was illegal, which was the first time Parliament overruled the
king; the start of the rebellion.
Trial of Archbishop Laud
Further proof of the significance of Magna Carta is shown in the trial of
Archbishop Laud in 1645. Laud was tried with attempting to subvert the laws of
England including writing a condemnation of Magna Carta claiming that as the
Charter came about due to rebellion it was not valid, a widely held opinion less
than a century before; when the ‘true’ Magna Carta was thought to be the 1225
edition and the 1215 edition was overlooked for this very reason. However Laud
was not trying to say that Magna Carta was evil, merely stating the truth about
its origins, as he used the document in his defence. He claimed his trial was
against the right of the freedom of the church (as the Bishops were voted out of
Parliament in order to allow for parliamentary condemnation of him) and,
rightfully, that he was not given the benefit of due process contrary to Clauses
1 and 39 of the Charter. By this stage Magna Carta had passed a great distance
beyond the original intentions for the document, and the Great Council had
evolved beyond a body merely ensuring the application of the Charter. It had got
to the stage where the Great Council or Parliament was inseparable from the
ideas of the Crown as described in the Charter and therefore it was not just the
King that was potentially bound by the Charter, but Parliament also.
Civil War and interregnum
After 7 years of civil war the King surrendered and was executed; it seemed
Magna Carta no longer applied, as there was no King. Oliver Cromwell was accused
of destroying Magna Carta and many thought he should be crowned just so that it
would apply. Cromwell himself had much disdain for the Magna Carta, at one point
describing it as "Magna Farta" to a defendant who sought to rely on it.
In this time of foment, there were many theorists who were enjoining the
revolutionary atmosphere of the age, and many based their theories, at least
initially on Magna Carta in the misguided belief that Magna Carta guaranteed
liberty and equality for all.
The Levellers believed that all should be equal and free without distinction
of class or status. They believed that Magna Carta was the ‘political bible’,
which should be prized above any other law and that it could not be repealed.
They prized it so highly that they believed all (such as Archbishop Laud) who
“trod Magna Carta…under their feet” deserved to be attacked at all levels. The
original idea was to achieve this through Parliament but there was little
support, because at the time the Parliament was seeking to impose itself as
above Magna Carta. The Levellers claimed Magna Carta was above any branch of
government, and this led to the upper echelons of the Leveller movement
denouncing Parliament. They claimed that Parliament’s primary purpose was not to
rule the people directly but to protect the people from the extremes of the King
and that this was adequately done by Magna Carta and therefore Parliament should
be subservient to it.
Quotes from the Magna Carta
- No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for
transport from any free man, without his consent.
- In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported
statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
- No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any
way harmed, nor will we go upon him nor will we send upon him, except by the
legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
After the Civil War Cromwell refused to support the Levellers and was
denounced as a traitor to Magna Carta. The importance of Magna Carta was greatly
magnified in the eyes of the Levellers, and John Lilburne, one of the leaders of
the movement, was known for his great advocacy of the Charter and was often
known to explain its purpose to lay people and to expose the misspeaking against
it in the popular press of the time. He was quoted as saying the ground and
foundation of my freedome I build upon the grand charter of England. However
as it became apparent that Magna Carta did not grant anywhere near the level of
liberty demanded by the Levellers, the movement reduced its advocacy of it.
Welwyn, another leader of the movement, advocated natural law and other
doctrines as the primary principles of the movement. This was mainly because the
obvious intention of Magna Carta was to grant rights only to the Barons and the
episcopacy, and not the general and equalitarian rights the Levellers were
claiming. Also influential, however, was Spelman’s rediscovery of the existence
of the feudal system at the time of Magna Carta, which seemed to have less and
less effect on the world of the time. The only right which the Levellers could
trace back to 1215, possibly prized over all others, was the right to due
process granted by Clause 39. One thing the Levellers did agree on with the
popular beliefs of the time was that Magna Carta was an attempt to return to the
(disputed) pre-Norman ‘golden age’.
However, not all such groups advocated Magna Carta. The Diggers were a very
early socialistic group who called for all land to be available to all for
farming and the like. Gerrard Winstanley, a leader of the group, despised Magna
Carta as a show of the hypocrisy of the post-Norman law, as Parliament and the
courts advocated Magna Carta and yet did not even follow it themselves. The
Diggers did, however, believe in the pre-Norman golden age and also wished to
return to it and called for the abolition of all Norman and post-Norman law.
The Commonwealth was relatively short lived however, and when Charles II took
the throne in 1660 the struggle between the Monarchy and Parliament died down as
both roles were clearly defined for the time being; Parliament was established
as the everyday government of Britain independent of but not yet more powerful
than the King. However, the struggles based on the Charter were far from over
but now took on the form of the struggle for supremacy between the Houses of
Parliament. Also in 1660 Charles II vowed to respect both the common law and the
Charter; it seems that the influence of Magna Carta would, for now, fall on the
In 1664 the British navy seized Dutch lands in both Africa and America
leading to full-scale war with Holland in 1665. The Lord Chancellor, Edward Lord
Clarendon, resisted an alliance with the Spanish and Swedes in favour of
maintaining a relationship with the French, who were unfortunately also the
allies of the Dutch. This lack of any real policy led to the Second Anglo-Dutch
War (1665-67), with the Dutch burning a number of ships in the docks at Chatham,
and the blame was placed on the shoulders of Clarendon. The Commons demanded
that Clarendon be indicted before the Lords, but the Lords refused, citing the
due process requirements of The Charter giving Clarendon the time to escape to
Europe. A very similar set of events followed in 1678 when the Commons asked the
Lords to indict Thomas Lord Danby on a charge of fraternising with the French.
As with Clarendon the Lords refused, again citing Magna Carta and their own
supremacy as the upper house. Before the quarrel could be resolved Charles
dissolved the Parliament. When Parliament was re-seated in 1681 again the
Commons attempted to force an indictment in the Lords. This time Edward
Fitzharris who was accused of writing libellously that the King was involved in
a papist plot with the French (including the overthrowing of Magna Carta).
However, the Lords doubted the veracity of the claim and refused to try
Fitzharris saying Magna Carta stated that everyone must be subject to due
process and therefore he must be tried in a lower court first. This time the
Commons retorted that it was the Lords who were denying justice under Clause 39
and that it was the Commons who were right to cite the Charter as their
precedent. Again before any true conclusions could be drawn Charles dissolved
the Parliament, although more to serve his own ends and to rid himself of a
predominantly Whig Parliament, and Fitzharris was tried in a regular court (the
King’s Bench) and executed for treason. Here the Charter, once again, was used
far beyond the content of its provisions, and simply being used as a
representation of justice. Here both houses were struggling for supremacy in a
state which was now open for the taking. Each house was claiming its supremacy
was supported by the Charter under Clause 39, but the power of the King was
still too great for either house to come out fully as the more powerful.
The squabble also continued outside the Palace of Westminster. In 1667 the
Lord Chief Justice and important member of the House of Lords, Lord Keating,
forced a grand Jury of Middlesex to return a verdict of murder when they wanted
to return one of manslaughter. However, his biggest crime was that, when they
objected on the grounds of Magna Carta, he scoffed and exclaimed “Magna Carta,
what ado with this have we?”. The Commons were incensed at this abuse of the
Charter and accused him of “endangering the liberties of the people”. However,
the Lords claimed he was just referring to the inappropriateness of the Charter
in this context, but Keating apologised anyway. In 1681 the next Lord Chief
Justice, Lord Scroggs, was condemned by the Commons first for being too severe
in the so-called ‘papist plot trials’ and second for dismissing another
Middlesex grand jury in order to secure against the indictment of the Duke of
York, the Catholic younger brother of the King later to become James II. Charles
again dissolved Parliament before the Commons could impeach Scroggs and removed
him from office on a good pension. Once again just as it seemed that the Commons
might be able to impose their supremacy over the Lords, the King intervened and
proved he was still the most powerful force in the government. However, it was
certainly beginning to become established that the Commons were the most
powerful branch of Government and they used the Charter as much as they could in
order to achieve this end.
Magna Carta Place, within Canberra, Australia's Parliamentary Triangle
opened on 24 May 2003.
The supremacy of the Commons
This was not the end of the struggle however, and in 1679 the Commons passed
the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which greatly reduced the powers of the Crown and
almost certainly established the Commons as the more powerful house. The act
passed through the Lords by a small majority, almost as an acquiescence of the
Commons being more powerful. This was the first time since the importance of the
Charter had been so magnified that the Government had admitted that the
liberties granted by the Charter were inadequate; however, this did not
completely oust the position of the Charter as an entrenched signification of
the law of the ‘golden age’ and the basis of common law. It did not take long
however before the questioning of the Charter really took off and Sir Matthew
Hale soon afterwards introduced a new doctrine of common law based on the
principle that the Crown (including the cabinet in that definition) made all law
and could only be bound by the law of God, and showed that the 1215 charter was
effectively overruled by the 1225 charter, which made any claims of entrenchment
very difficult to back up. This added further credence to the principle that the
Commons were a supreme branch of Government. Some completely denied the
relevance of the 1215 Charter as it was forced upon the king by rebellion
(although no-one seemed to worry that the 1225 charter was forced on a boy by
his guardians) or that the Charter was nothing more than a relaxation of the
rigid feudal laws and therefore had no meaning outside of that application.
The Glorious Revolution
The danger posed by the fact that Charles II had no legitimate child was
becoming more and more real; as this meant that the heir apparent was the Duke
of York, a Catholic and firm believer in the divine right of kings. This could
well mean that all the Commons' work establishing itself as the most powerful
arm of government could all too soon be undone. Parliament did all it could to
prevent James’ succession but was prevented when Charles dissolved the
Parliament, and danger realised itself in February 1685 when Charles died of a
stroke and James II assumed the throne of the United Kingdom. Almost straight
away James attempted to impose Catholicism as the religion of the country and to
regain the royal prerogative now vested in the Parliament. All this was bad
enough, but Parliament was slightly placated when James’ four-year-old son died
in 1677 and it seemed his Protestant daughter Mary would take his throne.
However when James' second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a male heir in
1688 Parliament could not take the risk that this would be another Catholic
monarch would assume the throne and take away their power, which they had
managed to attain, and in 1688 the Convention Parliament declared that James had
broken the contract of Magna Carta and nullified his claim to the throne. This
once and for all proved that Parliament was the major power in the British
Government; Mary, James II's eldest daughter was invited to take the throne with
her husband William of Orange. Many thought that, with bringing in a new
monarch, it would be prudent to define what powers this monarch should have;
hence the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights went far beyond what the Magna
Carta had ever achieved. It stated that the crown could not make law without
Parliament and although specifically mentioned the raising of taxes did not
limit itself to such, as Magna Carta did. However, one important thing to note
is that the writers of the bill did not seem to think that included any new
provisions of law; all the powers it ‘removes’ from the crown it refers to as
‘pretended’ powers, insinuating that the rights of Parliament listed in the Bill
already existed under a different authority, which one assumes is Magna Carta.
Therefore the importance of Magna Carta did not extinguish at this point if,
albeit it diminished somewhat.
The eighteenth century
The myth of Magna Carta was still continuing into the 18th century; in 1700
Samuel Johnson talked of Magna Carta being “born with a grey beard” referring to
the belief that the liberties set out in the Charter harked back to the Golden
Age and the time immemorial. However ideas about the nature of law in general
were beginning to change; in 1716 the Septennial Act was passed, which had a
number of consequences; firstly, it showed that Parliament no longer considered
its previous statutes entrenched as this act provided that the parliamentary
term was to be seven years, whereas fewer than twenty-five years beforehand they
had passed the Triennial Act (1694), which provided that a parliamentary term
was to be three years. It also greatly extended the powers of Parliament;
before, all legislation that passed in a parliamentary session was listed in the
election manifesto, so, effectively, the electorate was consulted on all issues
which were to be brought before Parliament. However, with a seven-year term, it
was unlikely, if not impossible, that even half the legislation passed would be
discussed at the election. In effect, this gave Parliament the power to
legislate as it liked, but not in the same way as we understand Parliamentary
sovereignty today, as Parliament still considered itself bound by the higher
law, such as Magna Carta - it simply felt it could overrule its own statutes.
Arguments for Parliamentary sovereignty were not new; however, even its
proponents would not have expected Parliament to be as powerful as it is today.
For example, in the previous century, Coke had discussed how Parliament might
well have the power to repeal the common law and Magna Carta, but they were, in
practice, prohibited from doing so, as the common law and Magna Carta were so
important in the constitution that it would be dangerous to the continuing
existence of the constitution to repeal them to any extent.
The extent of the Commons' powers
In 1722 the Bishop of Rochester (Francis Atterbury, a Stuart Jacobite), who
sat in the Lords, was accused of treason; in response the Commons brought a bill
intending to remove him from his post and send him into exile; and meanwhile
locked him in the Tower of London. This, once again, brought up the subject of
which was the more powerful house, and exactly how far that power went, as
Atterbury claimed, and many agreed, that the Commons had no dominion over the
Lords. Although many influential people disagreed; the Bishop of Salisbury (also
seated in the Lords) for example was of the strong opinion that the powers of
Parliament, mainly vested in the Commons, were sovereign and unlimited and
therefore there could be no such thing as entrenched law and no limit on these
powers at all, including the freedom of the upper house from the dominion of the
lower. Many intellectuals also agreed; Jonathan Swift for example went as far to
say that Parliament’s powers extended so far as to be able to alter or repeal
Magna Carta; a claim which would still have caused many a room to fall silent.
This argument incensed the Tories and Bolingbroke spoke of the day when “liberty
is restored and the radiant volume of Magna Carta is returned to its former
position of Glory” and he advocated the age-old beliefs of the immemorial
Parliament. This belief was anchored in the relatively new theory that when
William the Conqueror invaded England he only conquered the throne, not the
land, and he therefore assumed the same position in law as the Saxon rulers
before him; the Charter was a recapitulation or codification of these laws
rather than as previously believed an attempt to reinstate these laws after the
tyrannical Norman Kings, therefore these rights had existed constantly from the
‘golden age immemorial’ and could never be removed by any government. This
belief was still widely subscribed to, although some level of sovereignty had
been established it was not what one would recognise as sovereignty today. The
Whigs on the other hand claimed, rightfully, that the Charter only benefited the
nobility and the church and granted nowhere near the liberty they had come to
expect. So although they attacked the content of the Charter, they did not
actually attack the myth of the ‘golden age’ or attempt to say that the Charter
could be repealed, and the myth remained as immutable as ever.
By 1765 the taxes paid by the American colonists no longer covered the
expenses of the garrisons protecting them and therefore the government of the
time extended the stamp duty which had been in force on home territory since
1694 to cover the American colonies as well in the Stamp Act 1765. However the
colonists despised this as they were not represented in Parliament and refused
to see how a body, which did not represent them, could tax them. The cry ‘no
taxation without representation’ rang throughout the colonies. It did not seem
an option to give representation to both America and Manchester. The debate was
certainly a complicated one with the ‘representationalists’ quoting Magna Carta
although there is absolutely nothing in that document which provides for a
representative Parliament at all: when the Great Council was approving taxation
in the fourteenth century, it was certainly not representative of all those who
were paying that tax. This is a further example of how the idea of the liberties
of Magna Carta went far beyond its content. Magna Carta did not prohibit the
raising of tax from those who were not represented.
The influence of Magna Carta can be clearly seen in the U.S. Bill of Rights,
which enumerates various rights of the people and restrictions on government
power, such as:
No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due
process of law.
Article 21 from the Declaration of Rights in the Maryland Constitution of
That no freeman ought to be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized of his
freehold, liberties, or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner
destroyed, or deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of
his peers, or by the law of the land.
Quotes from the Magna Carta
- To none will we sell, to none deny or delay, right or justice.
- All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may
stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all
illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs. This, however,
does not apply in time of war to merchants from a country that is at war with
us. Any such merchants found in our country at the outbreak of war shall be
detained without injury to their persons or property, until we or our chief
justice have discovered how our own merchants are being treated in the country
at war with us. If our own merchants are safe they shall be safe too.
The doctrine of parliamentary supremacy if not parliamentary sovereignty had
all but emerged by the regency; William Blackstone argued strongly for
sovereignty in his Commentaries on the English Law in 1765. He essentially
argued that absolute supremacy must exist in one of the arms of Government and
he certainly thought it resided in Parliament as Parliament could legislate on
anything and potentially could even legislate the impossible as valid law if not
practical policy. The debate over whether or not Parliament could limit or
overrule the supposed rights granted by Magna Carta was to prove to be the basis
for the discussion over parliamentary sovereignty, however Blackstone preached
that Parliament should respect Magna Carta as a show of law from time immemorial
and the other great legal mind of the time, Jeremy Bentham used the Charter to
attack the legal abuses of his time.
In 1763 John Wilkes, an MP, was arrested for writing an inflammatory
pamphlet, No. 45, 23 April 1763. In his defence he cited Magna Carta
incessantly, and the weight that Magna Carta held at the time meant Parliament
was wary of continuing the charge and he was released and awarded damages for
the wrongful seizure of his papers as the general warrant under which he was
arrested was deemed illegal. He was still expelled from Parliament after
spending a week in the Tower of London.
He spent a number of years abroad until 1768 when he returned and failed to
be elected as the MP for London. Unperturbed he stood again for Middlesex but he
was expelled again on the basis of the earlier offence the next year. He stood
again and was elected but the Commons ruled that he was ineligible to sit. At
the next three re-elections Wilkes again was the champion, but the House did not
relent and his opponent, Lutteral, was announced the winner.
The treatment of Wilkes caused a furore in Parliament, with Lord Camden
denouncing the action as a contravention of Magna Carta. Wilkes made the issue a
national one and the issue was taken up by the populace. All over the country
there were very popular prints of him being arrested whilst teaching his son
about Magna Carta and he had the support of the Corporation of London, which had
long sought to establish its supremacy over Parliament based on The Charter. The
fight for the Charter was misplaced and it was merely the idea of the liberties
which were supposedly enshrined in the Charter that people were fighting for.
It is no coincidence that those who supported Wilkes would have little or no
knowledge of the actual content of the Charter, or if they did were looking to
protect their own position based on it. Wilkes re-entered the House in 1774 but
he had talked of Magna Carta as he knew it would capture public support to
achieve his aims. But he had begun the cause for a reform movement to ‘restore
the constitution’ through a more representative, less powerful, and shorter
One of the principal reformists was Granville Sharp. He was a philanthropist
who supported, among other causes, the Society for the Abolition of Slavery and
the Society for the Conversion of the Jews. Sharp called for the reform of
Parliament based on Magna Carta, and to back this up he devised the doctrine of
accumulative authority. This doctrine stated that because almost innumerable
parliaments had approved Magna Carta it would take the same number of
Parliaments to repeal it. Like many others, Sharp accepted the supremacy of
Parliament as an institution, but did not believe that this power was without
restraint, namely that Parliament could not repeal Magna Carta. Many reformists
agreed that the Charter was a statement of the liberties of the mythical and
immemorial golden age, but there was a popular movement to have a holiday to
commemorate the signing of The Charter in a similar way to the American 4th of
July holiday; however, very few went as far as Sharp.
Although there was a popular movement to resist the sovereignty of Parliament
based on The Charter, a great number of people still thought that the Charter
was over-rated. Cartwright pointed out in 1774 that Magna Carta could not
possibly have existed unless there was a firm constitution beforehand to
facilitate its use. He went even further later and claimed that the Charter was
not even part of the constitution but merely a codification of what the
constitution was at the time. Cartwright suggested that there should be a new
Magna Carta based on equality and rights for all, not just for landed persons.
The work of people like Cartwright was fast showing that the rights granted
by the Charter were out of pace with the developments which followed in the next
six centuries. There were certain provisions, such as Clauses 23 and 39, which
were not only still valid then but still form the basis of important rights in
the present English law. Undeniably, though, the importance of Magna Carta was
diminishing and the arguments for having a fully sovereign Parliament were
increasingly accepted. Many in the House still supported The Charter, such as
Sir Francis Burdett who in 1809 called for a return to the constitution of Magna
Carta and denounced the house for taking proceedings against the radical John
Gale Jones, who had denounced the house for acting in contravention of Magna
Carta. Burdett was largely ignored as by this stage Magna Carta had largely lost
its appeal, but he continued, claiming that the Long Parliament (1640-60) had
usurped all the power then enjoyed by the Parliament of the time. He stated that
Parliament was constantly contravening Magna Carta (although he was referring to
its judicial not legislative practice) which it did not have the right to do. He
received popular support and there were riots across London when he was arrested
for these claims. Again, a popular print circulated of him being arrested while
teaching his son about Magna Carta
Quotes from the Magna Carta
- To any man whom we have deprived or dispossessed of lands, castles,
liberties, or rights, without the lawful judgement of his equals, we will at
once restore these.
- IT IS ACCORDINGLY OUR WISH AND COMMAND that the English Church shall be
free, and that men in our kingdom shall have and keep all these liberties,
rights, and concessions, well and peaceably in their fullness and entirety for
them and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all things and all places for
The major breakthrough occurred in 1828 with the passing of the first
Offences Against the Person Act, which for the first time repealed a clause of
Magna Carta, namely Clause 36. With the myth broken, in one hundred and fifty
years nearly the whole charter was repealed leaving just Clauses 1, 13, 39, and
63 still in force today after the Statute Laws (Repeals) Act was passed
(although interestingly at the same time as the moon landings, possibly to
distract public attention for repealing The Charter).
With the popular movements being in favour of the liberties of The Charter,
and Parliament trying to establish their own sovereignty there needed to be some
sort of action in order to swing the balance in favour of one or the other.
However all that occurred was the Reform Act 1832 which was such a compromise
that it ended up pleasing no one. Due to their disappointment in the Reform Act
1832 a group was founded calling itself the Chartists; they called for a return
to the constitution of Magna Carta and eventually culminated in a codification
of what they saw as the existing rights of the People; the People's Charter. At
a rally for the Chartists in 1838 the Reverend Raynor demanded a return to the
constitution of the Charter; freedom of speech worship and congress. This is a
perfect example of how the idea of the Charter went so far beyond its actual
content: it depicted for many people the idea of total liberty whereas the
actual liberties granted by the Charter were very limited and not at all
intended to be applied to all. It was this over-exaggeration of the Charter that
eventually led to its downfall. The more people expected to get from the
Charter, the less Parliament was willing to attempt to cater to this
expectation, and eventually writers such as Tom Paine refuted the claims of
those such as the Chartists; this meant that the educated were no longer
supporting any of these claims, and therefore the myth gradually faded into
obscurity. The final claim against sovereignty of Parliament was erased, and the
road was open for establishing this doctrine.
Influences on later constitutions
Many later attempts to draft constitutional forms of government, including
the United States Constitution, trace their lineage back to this source
document. The United States Supreme Court has explicitly referenced Lord Coke's
analysis of Magna Carta as an antecedent of the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a
Magna Carta has influenced international law as well: Eleanor Roosevelt
referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as "a Magna Carta for all
Magna Carta and the Jews in England
Magna Carta contained two articles related to money lending and Jews in
England. Jewish involvement with money lending caused Christian resentment,
because the Church forbade usury; it was seen as vice and was punishable by
excommunication, although Jews, as non-Christians, could not be excommunicated
and were thus in a legal grey area. Secular leaders, unlike the Church,
tolerated the practice of Jewish usury because it gave the leaders opportunity
for personal enrichment. This resulted in a complicated legal situation: debtors
were frequently trying to bring their Jewish creditors before Church courts,
where debts would be absolved as illegal, while the Jews were trying to get
their debtors tried in secular courts, where they would be able to collect plus
interest. The relations between the debtors and creditors would often become
very nasty. There were many attempts over centuries to resolve this problem, and
Magna Carta contains one example of the legal code of the time on this issue:
- If one who has borrowed from the Jews any sum, great or small, die before
that loan be repaid, the debt shall not bear interest while the heir is under
age, of whomsoever he may hold; and if the debt fall into our hands, we will not
take anything except the principal sum contained in the bond. And if anyone die
indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that
debt; and if any children of the deceased are left under age, necessaries shall
be provided for them in keeping with the holding of the deceased; and out of the
residue the debt shall be paid, reserving, however, service due to feudal lords;
in like manner let it be done touching debts due to others than Jews.
After the Pope annulled Magna Carta, future versions contained no mention of
Jews. Jews were seen by the Church as a threat to their authority, and the
welfare of Christians, because of their special relationship to Kings as
moneylenders. "Jews are the sponges of kings," wrote the theologian William de
Montibus, "they are bloodsuckers of Christian purses, by whose robbery kings
dispoil and deprive poor men of their goods." Thus the anti-semitic wording as
seen in Magna Carta originated in part because of Christian nobles who permitted
the otherwise illegal activity of usury, a symptom of the larger ongoing power
struggle between Church and State during the Middle Ages.
Magna Carta is often a symbol for the first time the citizens of England were
granted rights against an absolute king. However, in practice the Commons could
not enforce Magna Carta in the very rare situations where it affected them, so
its reach was limited. Also, a large part of Magna Carta was copied, nearly word
for word, from the Charter of Liberties of Henry I, issued when Henry I rose to
the throne in 1100, which bound the king to laws which effectively granted
certain civil liberties to the church and the English nobility.
The document commonly known as Magna Carta today is not the 1215 charter, but
a later charter of 1225, and is usually shown in the form of The Charter of 1297
when it was confirmed by Edward I. At the time of the 1215 charter many of the
provisions were not meant to make long-term changes but simply to right some
immediate wrongs; therefore The Charter was reissued three times in the reign of
Henry III (1216, 1217 and 1225). After this, each king for the next two hundred
years (until Henry V in 1416) personally confirmed the 1225 charter in their own
charter, so one must not think of it as one document but a variety of documents
coming together to form one Magna Carta in the same way many treaties such as
the treaties of Rome and Nice come together to form the Treaties of the European
Union and the European Community.
This is the copy of the Magna Carta held in the National Archives in Washington
DC. In case you're wondering why England would give up its most important
historical document, they didn't -- multiple copies of the Magna Carta were made
every time the British "reissued" it. While this is not the "original" copy, it
does date back to 1297 A.D.
Popular perception is that King John and the barons signed the Magna Carta,
however there were no signatures on the original document, only a single seal by
the king. The words of the charter-Data per manum nostram-signify that
the document was personally given by the king's hand. By placing his seal on the
document, the King and the barons followed common law that a seal was sufficient
to authenticate a deed, though it had to be done in front of witnesses. John's
seal was the only one, he did not sign it, nor did any of the barons sign or
attach their seal to it.
The document is also honored in America as some view it as an antecedent of
the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. The United States has
contributed the Runnymede Memorial and Lincoln Cathedral offers a Magna Carta
USA week . The UK lent one of the four remaining copies of Magna Carta to the
U.S. for its bicentennial celebrations and donated a gold copy which is
displayed in the U.S. Capital Rotunda.
In 2006, BBC History Magazine held a poll to recommend a date for a proposed
"Britain Day". June 15, as the date of the signing of the original 1215 Magna
Carta, received most votes, above other suggestions such as D-Day, VE Day, and
Remembrance Day. The outcome was not binding, although Chancellor Gordon Brown
had previously given his support to the idea of a new national day to celebrate
British identity. 
Usage and spelling
Since there is no direct, consistent correlate of the English definite
article in Latin, the usual academic convention is to refer to the document in
English without the article as "Magna Carta" rather than "the Magna
Carta". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written appearance
of the term was in 1218: "Concesserimus libertates quasdam scriptas in
Magna Carta nostra de libertatibus." (Latin: "We concede the certain
liberties here written in our great charter of liberties.") However, "the
Magna Carta" is also frequently used. In the past, the document has also been
referred to as "Magna Charta".
Numerous copies were made each time it was issued, so all of the participants
would each have one - in the case of the 1215 copy, one for the royal archives,
one for the Cinque Ports, and one for each of the then 40 counties. Several of
those still exist and some are on permanent display. If there ever was one
single 'master copy' or original version of Magna Carta sealed by King John in
1215, it has not survived. Four contemporaneous copies (known as
"exemplifications") remain, all of which are located in the UK:
- The 'burnt copy', which was found in the records of Dover Castle in the 17th
century and so is assumed to be the copy that was sent to the Cinque Ports. It
was subsequently involved at a house fire at its owner's property, making it all
but illegible. It is the only one of the four to have its seal surviving,
although this too was melted out of shape in the fire. It is currently held by
the British Library
- Another supposedly original, but possibly amended version of the Magna Carta
is on show just outside of the chamber of the House of Lords situated in
- one owned by Lincoln Cathedral - normally on display at Lincoln Castle. It
has an unbroken attested history at Lincoln since 1216. We hear of it in 1800
when the Chapter Clerk of the Cathedral reported that he held it in the Common
Chamber and then silence again until 1846 when the Chapter Clerk of that time
moved from within the Cathedral to a property just outside it and in 1848 Magna
Carta was shown to a visiting group who reported it as “hanging on the wall in
an oak frame in beautiful preservation”. It went to the New York World Fair in
1939 and so had to be held in Fort Knox, next to the original of the US
Constitution, until the end of the Second World War. Having returned to Lincoln,
it has been back to America on various occasions since then.  It is not at
present on display because it has undergone conservation in preparation for its
visit to America, where it is exhibited at the Contemporary Art Center of
Virginia from March 30, 2007 to June 18, 2007 in recognition of the Jamestown
quadricentennial, with its anticipated return to Lincoln Castle being some
time during July of 2007.
- one owned by and displayed at Salisbury Cathedral.
Other early versions of Magna Carta survive. Durham Cathedral possesses 1216,
1217, and 1225 copies.
In 1952 the Australian Government purchased a 1297 copy of Magna Carta for
£12,500. This copy is now on display in the Members' Hall of Parliament House,
Canberra. In January 2006, it was announced by the Department of Parliamentary
Services that the document had been revalued down from A$40m to A$15m.
In September 1984, The Perot Foundation purchased another copy of the 1297
issue of Magna Carta. This copy is on indefinite loan to the National Archives
and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
American Bar Association Magna Carta Tribute
Barons, Bishops and Abbots who were party to Magna Carta.
Surety Barons for the enforcement of Magna Carta:
- William d'Albini, Lord of Belvoir Castle.
- Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk.
- Hugh Bigod, Heir to the Earldoms of Norfolk and Suffolk.
- Henry de Bohun, Earl of Hereford.
- Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford.
- Gilbert de Clare, heir to the earldom of Hertford.
- John FitzRobert, Lord of Warkworth Castle.
- Robert Fitzwalter, Lord of Dunmow Castle.
- William de Fortibus, Earl of Albemarle.
- William Hardell, **Mayor of the City of London.
- William de Huntingfield, Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk.
- John de Lacie, Lord of Pontefract Castle.
- William de Lanvallei, Lord of Standway Castle.
- William Malet, Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset.
- Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and Gloucester.
- William Marshall jr, heir to the earldom of Pembroke.
- Roger de Montbegon, Lord of Hornby Castle, Lancashire.
- Richard de Montfichet, Baron.
- William de Mowbray, Lord of Axholme Castle.
- Richard de Percy, Baron.
- Saire/Saher de Quincey, Earl of Winchester.
- Robert de Roos, Lord of Hamlake Castle.
- Geoffrey de Saye, Baron.
- Robert de Vere, heir to the earldom of Oxford.
- Eustace de Vesci, Lord of Alnwick Castle.
These bishops being witnesses (mentioned by the King as his advisers in the
decision to sign the Charter):
- Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal of the Holy Roman
- Henry, Archbishop of Dublin
- E. Bishop of London,
- J. Bishop of Bath,
- P. Bishop of Winchester,
- H. Bishop of Lincoln,
- R. Bishop of Salisbury,
- W. Bishop of Rochester,
- W. Bishop of Worcester,
- J. Bishop of Ely,
- H. Bishop of Hereford,
- R. Bishop of Chichester,
- W. Bishop of Exeter.
These abbots being witnesses:
- the Abbot of St. Edmunds
- the Abbot of St. Albans
- the Abbot of Bello
- the Abbot of St. Augustines in Canterbury
- the Abbot of Evesham
- the Abbot of Westminster
- the Abbot of Peterborough
- the Abbot of Reading
- the Abbot of Abingdon
- the Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey
- the Abbot of Winchcomb
- the Abbot of Hyde
- the Abbot of Certesey
- the Abbot of Sherborne
- the Abbot of Cerne
- the Abbot of Abbotebir
- the Abbot of Middleton
- the Abbot of Selby
- the Abbot of Cirencester
- the Abbot of Hartstary
- Llywelyn the Great Also the other Welsh Princes
- Master Pandulff, subdeacon and member of the Papal Household
- Brother Aymeric, Master of the Knights Templar in England
- Alexander II of Scotland
- ^ http://www.dca.gov.uk
- ^ KLOPFER v. NORTH CAROLINA, 386 U.S. 213 (1967)
- ^ Charles Henry Browining (1898). The Magna Charta
Barons and Their American Descendants.... Page 50.
- ^ MAGNA CARTA -- (Senate - June 15, 2000), http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?r106:S15JN0-0011:,
Robert Byrd, Congressional Record, accessed September 24, 2006
- ^ BBC News - Magna Carta tops British day poll
- ^ Magna Charta translation, Magna Charta Surety Baron
Listing, Magna Charta Period Feudal Estates
- "Magna Carta". In Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
- Article from Australia's Parliament House about the relevance of Magna Carta
- J. C. Holt (1992). Magna
Carta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-27778-7.
- Jennings: Magna Carta and its influence in the world today
- H. Butterfield; Magna Carta in the Historiography of the 16th and 17th
- G.R.C. Davis; Magna Carta
- J. C. Dickinson; The Great Charter
- G. B. Adams; Constitutional History of England
- A. Pallister; Magna Carta the Legacy of Liberty
- A. Lyon; Constitutional History of the United Kingdom
- G. Williams and J. Ramsden; Ruling Britannia, A Political History of
- Royal letter promulgating the text of Magna Carta (1215), treasure 3 of the
British Library displayed via The European Library