The story of Magna Carta

King John's wars and taxes stirred England's barons to protect their interests by rebelling against him, and they set an enormously important precedent for liberty which benefited everyone.

Closeup of a portion of
the copy of Magna Carta
at the British Museum

Americans owe much of their liberty to English constitutional precedents limiting government power, and the most famous document in English constitutional history was Magna Carta.

Many history buffs know that King John signed it on June 15, 1215, but you might not know that it was a flop. He disregarded it and died the following year. His son, Henry III, was forced to sign a modified Magna Carta in 1216, and he disregarded it. He had to sign another one in 1217, and this too was ignored. The Magna Carta he signed in 1225 is the one that successfully imposed limits on royal power, at least for a while. It was reissued and entered in statute rolls in 1297.

The original Magna Carta, which is the version most people are familiar with, has a preamble and 63 clauses. The first group says that the church is free to appoint its own officials. The second group affirmed feudal law relating to lands held by the king. The third affirmed rights of subtenants. The fourth had to do with towns and merchants. The fifth affirmed points of law and justice. The sixth related to government officials. The seventh was about royal forests. The eighth aimed to resolve current disputes, including the firing of certain royal officials. The ninth provided assurances that the king would honor the terms of the charter.

In other words, Magna Carta addressed specific grievances of its day. There isn’t any statement of fundamental principles such as were expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

As historian Samuel Thorne observed, "The document looks very much like answers given by many persons to the questions, 'What is being done wrong?' 'What practices should be halted?' 'What improvements in administration should be adopted?'" England's barons didn't rebel against King John to secure Magna Carta. They rebelled because they wanted to stop him from dragging them into another costly European war. Magna Carta was what they demanded after his defeat.

For future generations, the most important single clause was #39 which affirmed the right to trial by jury: “No 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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” In addition, clause #40 declared, “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Clause #14 provided a starting definition for Parliament: “To obtain the general consent of the realm for the assessment of an ‘aid’ – except in the three cases specified above – or a ‘scutage,’ we will cause the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons to be summoned individually by letter. To those who hold lands directly of us we will cause a general summons to be issued, through the sheriffs and other officials, to come together on a fixed day (of which at least 40 days notice shall be given) and at a fixed place. In all letters of summons, the cause of the summons will be stated. When a summons has been issued, the business appointed for the day shall go forward in accordance with the resolution of those present, even if not all those who were summoned have appeared.”

According to constitutional historian F.W. Maitland, “During the period which ends with the charter we have little evidence as to the constitution of the national assembly. The earliest writ of summons that we have is one addressed to the Bishop of Salisbury in 1205; of general summonses sent out through the sheriffs we have none preserved; but very possibly throughout the reign of Henry the Second the assembly had been constituted after the fashion prescribed by the charter.” Maitland added: “It is not very clear that in theory the consent of the national council had been necessary for taxation or that it had been in fact granted.”

“The Charter was regarded as important,” observed historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, “because it assigned definite and practical remedies to temporary evils. There was very little that was abstract in its terms, less even than later generations supposed. Yet it was the abstract and general character of the event at Runnymede that made it a great influence on history. A King had been brought to order, not by a posse of reactionary feudalists, but by the community of the land under baronial leadership; a tyrant had been subjected to the laws which hitherto it had been his private privilege to administer and to modify at will. A process had begun which was to end in putting the power of the Crown into the hands of the community at large.”

Although Magna Carta was a remarkable achievement, it wasn’t the first time a king had conceded limits on his power. King John’s Grandfather, Henry I, made some general concessions (but not trial by jury) when he came to power in 1100. His “Charter of Liberties,” also known as the “Coronation Charter,” became a model for Magna Carta. In 1183, Frederick Barbarossa granted substantial independence to towns in the Lombard League. King Alfonso IX of Leon, in 1188, granted independence to his feudal vassals. In 1205, King Peter II of Aragon conceded important liberties to his subjects. Emperor Frederick II, in 1220, granted privileges to his princes. In 1222, Hungary’s King Andrew II issued the Golden Bull which granted substantial independence to his vassals. In every case, a European king made concessions to gain support following a political struggle or war.

This was also the case with King John, the same King John who was a foe of Robin Hood. In 1899, when John was about 32, he came to power in 1199 following the death of his brother Richard “the Lionheart,” a charismatic character, reckless adventurer and spendthrift. Richard was away from England during most of his rule, pursuing a Crusade in the Holy Land and other costly schemes. “Whereas Richard had neglected public affairs,” wrote historian Arthur Hogue, “John was industrious and attentive to details; he was often present in the law courts and at the Exchequer [Treasury]; John, however, had none of Richard’s excellence as a soldier; and, more important, he was suspicious of all men, jealous of his barons, devious in pursuing his objectives and calculatingly cruel.”

King John inherited his brother’s wars with France. In French territories controlled by England for more than 150 years, feudal lords preferred to go with King John’s nephew Arthur of Brittany, and King John struggled to get these territories back. If he had been successful, the war taxes he imposed on his feudal barons might have been tolerable, but he was defeated again and again. Meanwhile, King John became embroiled in military conflicts with Scotland and Wales. He hanged the sons of 28 Welsh lords.

He got tough on the Jews. “He first exacted the high price of 4,000 marks for confirming their charters,” noted historian Samuel E. Thorne. “In 1207 he took a tallage of 4,000 marks. In the same year he made a second demand, requiring Jewish moneylenders to pay a tenth of the value of their bonds. The basis of this second assessment was the estimated value of debts due, each moneylender being required to furnish a list of his outstanding accounts and to pay a tenth of that total. Since liquid resources sufficient to pay that portion of total assets were seldom, if ever, available the tallage required the calling in of loans on which the date of repayment had passed or on which no date had been fixed. The borrowers, who themselves lacked ready money, were thus compelled to raise it by the sale or lease of land, thereby putting the Jewish moneylender in funds, or alternatively, to make a composition or fine with the Crown, payments being credited to the Jewish lender’s tax bill. The king was thus taking the debts due the Jews into his own hands and collecting them directly…In 1210, Jews throughout England were suddenly imprisoned without warning of any kind, all males of any substance being lodged in jail. This action was accompanied by the seizure of their bonds, chirographs, and tallies, records of the debts they were owed. Later that year, after investigation had been made, a number of prominent Jews were found to have concealed or undervalued their accounts in 1207 and examples were made of them. Isaac of Norwich managed to purchase the king’s favor of 10,000 marks, to be paid at a mark a day. He was stripped of all his possessions – his home, his bonds, and his chattels. Isaac of Canterbury was hanged.”

King John demanded ever higher taxes from the lords, but they didn’t seem to have much cash. Consequently, King John seized their land and castles. Discussing the plight of Richard Noel, for instance, historian J.C. Holt reported that “it had pleased King John to put him in prison and seize his land. He had offered the king 50 m. for his release and the recovery of his estates but had defaulted on the terms of payment after he had paid 18 m. and 40d. and thereupon…[the] sheriff had seized it into his hand.” King John demanded payments to approve aristocratic titles, inheritances, marriages and more. Holt wrote, “William fitz Allen offered 10,000 m. for the succession to the fitz Alan barony, Thomas of Erdington 5000 m. for the custody of these same lands and for the marriage of one of the sons, John de Lacy 7000 m. for the succession to the honour of Pontefract and other estates of his father, Warin de Montchensy 2000 m. for the inheritance of his family estates and for quittance of debts owed to Jews, Margaret, widow of Robert fitz Roger of Clavering, 1,000 pounds for the lands of her husband and her dower and that she should not be compelled to marry, Richard de Rivers 500 pounds for the marriage of Matilda de Lucy, lady of Ongar, Thomas Moulton 1000 m. for the custody of the Lucy heiresses of Egremont, Peter de Maulay 7000 m. for the hand of Isabella of Thornham, and Geoffrey de Mandeville the inordinate sum of 20,000 m. for the hand of Isabella of Gloucester, the erstwhile queen…

“The king,” Holt continued, “was ready to use extreme measures to ensure that such terms were kept. He insisted that debtors followed the well-tried method of providing guarantors by demanding hostages until they found them, or by placing them in open custody while they sought them, or by threatening them with imprisonment if they failed to find them…Dispossession was becoming a regular instrument of policy; it was the antithesis of all legal and orderly government and by using it, either as threat or actuality, the king was bringing civil war all the nearer…John’s increasing readiness to reveal the reality of force which lay behind the legal façade of government was matched by an open admission that his financial oppression was geared directly to his war plans on the continent. Hitherto this connexion had often been implied rather than openly stated. Now John emphasized the close interrelation of war and finance by pardoning debts or postponing repayment in return for a fixed amount of military service over and above the normal feudal commitments of his vassals.”

Moreover, King John was struggling with Pope Innocent III. This pope was a man to reckon with: he had urged the suppression of heresies in southern France, promoted the Inquisition as a weapon against heretics and launched the Fourth Crusade against Muslims. Because King John insisted on appointing his own man, John de Gray, as Archbishop of Canterbury, over the Pope’s objections, the Pope excommunicated him and closed English churches for a half-dozen years. There weren’t any Christian baptisms, marriages or burials during that time. In 1513, facing the prospect of a French invasion, King John issued his “Concession” which gave in to the Pope’s demands and acknowledged Innocent III as the overlord of England. The Pope’s man, Stephen Langton, would be Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope accepted, and King John hoped this would discourage the French King Philip from invading England.

The French , however, continued fighting to expel the English from their soil. The murder of Arthur of Brittany was blamed on King John, further undermining whatever support he had in France. In 1214, King John’s assault on Poitou failed. In Northern France, at Bouvines, King Philip II defeated an army led by King John’s nephew Otto of Saxony and the Earl of Salisbury.

King John returned to England and announced that he planned yet another military campaign for which he demanded higher scutage, the tax based on the number of knights who didn’t provide military service. Knights were customarily expected to serve 40 days a year as cavalrymen. But in northern England barons, who were responsible for paying the tax, refused because they didn’t believe they were obligated to fight overseas.

This tax revolt posed a fundamental challenge to the English monarchy. William the Conqueror had established the feudal system after he won the Battle of Hastings (1066) and became king of England. He owned all the land, and aristocratic barons held their properties as tenants. They owed him a certain amount of military service to be performed by their subtenants, the knights. The system provided a military force which enabled a king to pursue his wars. In King John’s day, there were about 230 barons.

King John appealed to the Pope for help against the barons – one reason for humiliating himself with his Concession was to qualify for such help if it were needed. Accordingly, Innocent III denounced the rebellion and excommunicated rebellious barons, but the barons kept up the pressure.

In May 1215 they captured London. “Although in the final scene of the struggle,” wrote Winston S. Churchill, “the Archbishop showed himself unwilling to go to the extreme of civil war, it was he who persuaded the barons to base their demands upon respect for ancient custom and law, and who gave them some principle to fight for besides their own class interests…In place of the King’s arbitrary despotism they proposed, not the withering anarchy of feudal separatism, but a system of checks and balances which would accord the monarchy of its necessary strength, but would prevent its perversion by a tyrant or fool.”

Then according to chronicler Roger of Wendover, “King John, when he saw that he was deserted by almost all, so that our his regal superabundance of followers he scarcely retained seven knights, was much alarmed lest the barons would attack his castles and reduce them without difficulty, as they would find no obstacle to their so doing; and he deceitfully pretended to make peace for a time with the aforesaid barons, and send William Marshal earl of Pembroke, with other trustworthy messengers, to them, and told them that, for the sake of peace, and for the exaltation and honour of the kingdom, he would willingly grant them the laws and liberties they required; he also sent word to the barons by these same messengers, to appoint a fitting day and place to meet and carry all these matters into effect. King John met a committee of 25 barons at Runnymede, a field along the Thames River near Windsor Castle, and signed Magna Carta. It was written in Latin as was customary for legal documents back then.

There were major differences between the European charters and Magna Carta. The European charters focused on achieving independence from the king, considered a foreign oppressor; but in England the issue was limiting the king’s power. Moreover, European rulers saw that it was in their own self-interest to make concessions, whereas King John was forced to sign Magna Carta, so it represented a political triumph for the barons.

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) objected to Magna Carta because of its provision that English authorities and not the Pope would appoint Church officials in England. He called Magna Carta a "shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the king by violence and fear...we utterly reject and condemn this settlement, and under threat of excommunication order that the king not dare to observe it nor the barons require it to be observed. The charter, we hereby declare to be a nullity, void of all validity forever." In early 1216 King John repudiated Magna Carta.

This provoked the barons to renew the struggle against him, and they appealed to French King Philip for help. His son Prince Lewis landed at Kent, England, and his soldiers soon controlled London. King John fled to Wales. He made a few more military maneuvers before he caught a fever and died in Newark.

His son Henry became Henry III, but he was only nine years old, and the government was run by advisor William Marshal. He reissued Magna Carta, with a few changes, and opposition to the monarchy faded away. Prince Lewis was paid to take his soldiers back to France. The monarchy regained control of London and the countryside.

As Churchill noted, “In the next hundred years it [Magna Carta] was reissued thirty-eight times, at first with a few substantial alterations, but retaining its original characteristics. Little more was heard of the Charter until the seventeenth century.”

Meanwhile, Parliament had begun to take shape. As Maitland explained, “After 1215 the next great halting place in the history of the national assembly is the year 1295. In the latter year there is, we may say definitely, a parliament; the great outlines have been drawn once and for all. During these eighty eventful years a new principle has emerged and become dominant. The assembly contemplated by the first edition of the great charter is a feudal assembly. It may be questioned perhaps what right the archbishops, bishops and abbots find a place there – whether as the heads of the national church or as great vassals of the king; they were both; but the assembly is a court of tenants in chief….the representation principle was growing.”

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Tudor monarchy successfully centralized royal power, and lawyers defending persecuted Puritans appealed to Magna Carta. Shakespeare’s play King John, written during the heyday of Tudor Queen Elizabeth, says very little about it.

But in the 17th century, when the Stuart kings James I and Charles I tried to establish European-style dictatorial power in England, the great judge Edward Coke (pronounced “Cook”) protested that dictatorial power would violate the Great Charter of English liberties. He helped inspire others to join the opposition, and they prevailed. Charles I signed the Petition of Right (1628), which acknowledged limits on his power, and after he disregarded this, he was beheaded.

It’s true, of course, that Magna Carta represented a gain for the barons who were pursuing their own interests. Magna Carta wasn’t meant to benefit ordinary people. But by showing that one group could secure its liberty, Magna Carta inspired others to try securing liberty, and they too succeeded.

In the eighteenth century, reported historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, Magna Carta was “worshipped by Blackstone, Burke, and all of England. It had become the symbol for the spirit of our whole constitution. When, therefore, with the dawn of a more strenuous era, the democracy to the field against the established order, each side put the Great Charter in the ark which it carried into battle. Pittites [followers of Prime Minister William Pitt] boasted of the free and glorious constitution which had issued from the tents on Runnymede, now attacked by base Jacobins and levelers; Radicals appealed to the letter and the spirit of ‘Magna Charta’ against gagging acts [restricting free speech], packed juries and restrictions of the franchise [voting]. America revolted in its name and seeks spiritual fellowship with us in its memory. It has been left to our own disillusioned age to study it as an historical document, always remembering that its historical importance lay not only in what the men of 1215 intended by its clauses, but in the effect which it has had on the imagination of their descendants.”

Historian William H. Dunham, Jr.: "the Charter did help to stimulate and to sanction the formulation of the concept, the due process of law. It also preserved the principle of the rule of law. Furthermore, the fact of the Great Charter itself, following a century-old tradition of coronation charters -- virtually, engagements between sovereign and subject -- and the subsequent forty-four confirmations of the Charter, all these fostered the principle of contract, government by agreement. Also, the inviolability that men attributed to the Charter made of it a higher kind of law by which they might appraise he validity of ordinances and statutes. Thus Magna Carta, as a criterion of recognition of validity, inspired Englishmen eventually to create a set of principles that have assured the certainty in public law and the consistency in governance that form the quintessence of British constitutionalism."

There’s a copy of Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral, another at Lincoln Cathedral and two copies at the British Museum (London).

See:

Winston S. Churchill, The Birth of Britain (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1956).

Gottfried Dietze, Magna Carta and Property (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1965).

Arthur Hogue, Origins of the Common Law (Indianapolis: LibertyPress, 1966).

J.C. Holt, Magna Carta (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

J.A.P. Jones, King John and Magna Carta (Bristol, England: Longman, 1971).

F.W. Maitland, The Constitutional History of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1946). Original edition 1908.

William Sharp McKechnie, Magna Carta: a commentary on the great charter of King John with an historical introduction (Glasgow: James Maclehose, 1914). Subsequent reprintings by Burt Franklin and The Lawbook Exchange.

William F. Swindler, Magna Carta: Legend and Legacy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).

Samuel E. Thorne, William H. Dunham, Jr., Philip B. Kurland and Ivor Jennings, , The Great Charter: Four Essays on Magna Carta and the History of our Liberty (New York: Pantheon, 1965).

George Macaulay Trevelyan, History of England (London: Longmans, 1937).

W.L. Warren, King John (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

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