Magna Carta: The First Step Towards Liberty

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Memorial at Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta. Photographed by Brian Slater CC 2.0
Memorial at Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta. Photographed by Brian Slater CC 2.0

The Magna Carta, which means “the Great Charter” in Latin, was a charter of baronial rights granted by King John Plantagenet to the barons of England in 1215. This historical document was initially conceived as a peace treaty but it significantly changed the way how England was governed by kings, eventually becoming the foundation that led to constitutionalism in Europe.

Contents of the Magna Carta

Although the Magna Carta was not the first charter of rights signed by a monarch, it was the most significant. Most of the 63 initial clauses in the Magna Carta dealt with the feudal, judicial and church rights, as well as the management of lands and the regulation of trade & taxes. However, the most important clause was clause 39 which promised protection against royal oppression of civil and noble rights. It stated that: “No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or deprived or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined … except by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land”. Originally, the free man referred only to a select group of people which included the barons and knights but it was later extended to the commoners as well. Another important clause was clause 40 which promised: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.” Both clauses assured that trials will be fair, timely and incorruptible.

1868 woodcut by Joseph Martin Kronheim depicting King John signing the Magna Carta.
1868 woodcut by Joseph Martin Kronheim depicting King John signing the Magna Carta.

Origins

The Magna Carta was the result of various events that caused widespread unrest in England (A Short History of England, “Magna Carta”, pg. 65-71). In 1189, after the death of the successful King Henry II, his son Richard I the ‘Lionheart’, succeeded him and brought the kingdom to chaos as he overtaxed the population for his crusade in Jerusalem. In 1199, John I succeeded to the throne when Richard died. He was already unpopular before his coronation as he had sought French support to steal the throne while Richard was away fighting in the crusade. He raised taxes further and extorted money from the barons to fund his military campaigns. He would lose many territories during a series of unsuccessful wars, earning him the nickname “Softsword”. Moreover, he was briefly excommunicated by the Pope over a dispute about the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The final straw was the failure of his 1214 campaign in France, which caused the barons to revolt against John. John was powerless to stop the rebellion so he was forced to negotiate with the rebel barons to make peace. The demands of the barons were written in the Magna Carta and officially sealed by John.

1626 painting of King John held at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Artist unknown. [Public Domain]
1626 painting of King John held at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Artist unknown. [Public Domain]

Revisions to the Magna Carta

The first Magna Carta was short lived as King John went back on his words and tried to get the Pope to annul it (A Short History of England, “Henry III and Simon de Montfort”, pg. 72-79). The Pope did annul the charter, this caused a civil war between John and the barons. John soon fell ill and died in 1216. His successor Henry III was only 9 years old when he was coronated and the regency council reissued the Magna Carta again to make peace with barons. During the regency, England saw a period of relative prosperity while being at peace with France compared to the reign of Richard and John. This may had contributed to the initial belief that the government is better without royal influence. The revised version of Magna Carta issued during Henry III’s adulthood in 1225 is regarded the definitive version that is most well known today.

1225 version of Magna Carta with King Henry III’s seal kept in the British Library Photograph by British Library. [Public Domain]
1225 version of Magna Carta with King Henry III’s seal kept in the British Library Photograph by British Library. [Public Domain]

Consequences

From the disastrous reign of King John, the rights of the English people took a step forward. For the first time, the king could not simply act as he wished and became subjected to the law.

One way of interpreting the whole ordeal is to see it as a decline of royal authority in England. Obviously the monarch had less dictatorial powers after Magna Carta, but that did not necessarily meant a weakened throne. In fact, it might have increased the legitimacy of the throne and created a stable kingdom. By having a codified set of laws regarding the social contract between the crown and its subjects, a monarch can justify continued reign as long as laws were upheld, decreasing the risk of unrest and revolt from the people. A more cooperative nobility is more likely to assist the monarch with issuance of royal ordinance in their fiefs, this was extremely important to centralization efforts. However, this possibility was not evidently exploited by medieval English monarchs, they most likely saw the Magna Carta as nothing more than a shameful slight to their authority and continuously tried to nullify the charter (A Short History of England, “Magna Carta”, pg. 79).

The Magna Carta also promised that no widows can be forced to remarry, this guaranteed that a dead noble’s assets cannot be robbed by other nobles through marriage. This can also be interpreted as an increase of rights for women in medieval England, as they were able to choose who or whether to marry after their husbands have died.

Statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester, England. Photograph by NotFromUtrecht. [CC 3.0]
Statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester, England. Photograph by NotFromUtrecht. [CC 3.0]

Significance

The Magna Carta marked the beginning of greater power sharing in governing England. It influenced the creation of the Provisions of Oxford in 1258 which the revolutionary leader Simon de Montfort forced King Henry III to obey. He created a periodical parliament that would meet three times a year to discuss public policies under the provisions, regardless of the king’s will, which shifted political influence to municipalities from the king’s court; this parliament would operate in accordance to the clauses of the Magna Carta (A Short History of England, “Henry III and Simon de Montfort”, pg 76). The first English parliament would also include the commoners, for the first time a political body that consisted of lesser men had been assembled in a feudal monarchy. The Magna Carta would become the most important document that was repeatedly cited throughout constitutional politics as a symbol against tyranny.

Replica of the Magna Carta displayed in the United States Capitol at Washington D.C Photographed by Jorfer. [Public Domain]
Replica of the Magna Carta displayed in the United States Capitol at Washington D.C Photographed by Jorfer. [Public Domain]

Legacy

The Magna Carta continued to influence the world even centuries after it was created. It paved the way for the development of human rights in the future. It had a huge influence on the constitution of the United States as it inspired the colonists in America who were educated in English law to fight against the oppressive rule of Britain. We also owe much of our justice system today to clauses 39 and 40 of the Magna Carta. It is no exaggeration to say that our modern values of democracy, freedom and justice were shaped by the Magna Carta.

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