From its inauspicious beginning, the Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”) has taken on almost mythical significance. It is viewed as the foundation of the rule of law and as a source of inspiration throughout the world. June 15, 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, yet the document—and the ideas that grew from it—is perhaps even more important today. Nearly every country in which government is founded on the consent of the governed rather than dictatorial rule by the arbitrary will of a single person or a small group can trace its heritage to this single document. How did a medieval charter that was in effect legally for only 10 weeks become such a powerful symbol?
When the Magna Carta was written in 1215, England was governed by a feudal system. The will of the king was the ultimate law on all issues. In fact, the monarch’s ability to rule was based on the “divine right of kings”—the belief that the monarch was the ordained representative of God on Earth. The nobility (barons) owed loyalty to the king because they held their land at the king’s pleasure. Their obligation to the king included paying taxes, called “aids” or “scutage,” and providing knights to fight the king’s wars. In turn, the barons provided land and safety to their vassals (feudal tenants) and, thus, controlled the lives of ordinary people. The poorest people (serfs) had virtually no rights at all.
The sealing of Magna Carta marked a profound change in this feudal social and political order. Its sweeping content and broad reach included several new limitations on the powers of a ruling king and included the recognition that all free men had some rights that could not be abridged except by course of law.
Perhaps, the most important article was what became Chapter 39, which prevented the King from proceeding against any “freeman” of their realm except by “lawful judgment of his peers and the law of the land.” These few words eventually formed the basis of the promise of “due process of law” guaranteed to all American citizens under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. It also provided the basis for the right to trial by jury. Chapter 39 formed the basis for the development of the rule of law upon which every democratic government is based today.
Magna Carta was, in essence, a peace treaty, agreed to by King John (1167 – 1216) in response to the demands of his rebellious barons. The barons resented the king for his constant efforts to raise taxes and force them to send knights or money for military ventures. Some saw King John as an illegitimate ruler, having secured his throne by murdering his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, following the death of Richard I. The barons resented the King’s efforts to increase royal control over everything from courts to the transfer of property and estates, and even the marriage of the barons’ daughters or widows. Particularly aggravating to the barons and their vassals was the King’s seemingly insatiable appetite for forest land. Historically, hunting and fishing was prohibited in the royal forests—ostensibly to protect the herd for the King’s sport. Trespassing in the royal forests was an offense against the King, and poaching resulted in serious fines, known as “amercements,” or worse. Many barons and vassals derived their living from the forests, and every acre claimed by the king resulted in very real deprivation. (The dispute over control of the forests formed the basis of the legend of Robin Hood.)
For his part, John regarded the barons’ complaints as a treasonous assault on the King and his sovereignty. Some of the barons had conspired to kill him. Many barons had refused to send King John the men or financial support he needed to carry out military campaigns. In fact, some northern barons had offered the throne of England to the son of the King of France in exchange for French help in deposing John.
Because of his increasingly strained treasury, his power struggles with Pope Innocent III, and military losses, King John was vulnerable. When the barons declared that they would renounce their feudal loyalty to John unless he agreed to a list of specific demands, he was forced to accept terms at Runnymede, outside of London. Just 10 weeks later, the Pope annulled Magna Carta. After John died, his son, Henry III, reissued a revised charter in 1225. Over the years, Magna Carta has been reissued many times. It eventually led to the establishment of English common law and the creation of the English parliament. Although only three clauses from the original Charter remain law in England, Chapter 39—due process of law— is notably one of them.
The notion of representative government and a guarantee of individual rights, further influenced by the writings of Edward Coke and John Locke in the 17th century, had a considerable impact on the development of American democracy. Coke made the case against the theory of “divine right,” and both Coke and Locke argued in favor of trial by jury and limited government that ruled with the consent of the governed.
The earliest English settlers brought these ideas with them across the Atlantic and formed the foundation of written colonial charters in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. The cry of “no taxation without representation”—which was based on Chapter 12 of Magna Carta—helped spur on the American Revolution. In 1774, Thomas Jefferson, echoing Magna Carta, wrote that Parliament had taken away “rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.” President Obama in a 2011 speech to the British Parliament said, “Our system of justice, customs, and values stemmed from our British forefathers….Our relationship is special because of the values and beliefs that have united our people throughout the ages. Centuries ago when kings, emperors, and warlords reigned over much of the world, it was the English who first spelled out the rights and liberties of man in Magna Carta.”
It is ironic, perhaps, that the basis for our modern democracy—proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—had its origins in a treaty between a tyrannical king and his aristocratic subjects. Yet to understand how our country was formed, it is essential to learn the story of what happened on that summer day in an English meadow eight centuries ago. Today, the scene of that historic moment is marked by (among other memorials) an oak tree planted in 1987 with soil from Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The dedication plaque reads, “[this tree] stands in acknowledgement that the ideals of liberty and justice embodied in the Constitution trace their lineage through institutions of English law to the Magna Carta…”
When John became king he inherited a large empire. His power stretched from the edge of Scotland to the south of France. It included all of England and much of France, and was known as the Angevin Empire. However this huge empire was not automatically his. To take possession of the French par of the Empire, he had to promise to serve the King of France. The current King of France and the French barons did not want John as king. They wanted his nephew Arthur. Back in England, John was better placed. He had the good will of the barons.
They all agreed he was the right person to be the new king. However, John’s brother Richard had left some big problems for John to sort out. He wad spent much of his reign fighting Crusades. This meant he more or less ignored England, leaving the barons and the Church leaders to run the country from him. He also ran up big debts paying for these wars. John’s first need was to get himself accepted as king by Philip II of France. Luckily his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, helped him She was French and persuaded Philip that John should be king.
In return John pledged loyalty to Philip and agreed to be his vassal, a servant of Philip. So in 1200 John took control of his lands. In 1200 John married Isabella of Angouleme. This was a useful move because control of Angouleme would hep John to keep a firm grip on his Angevin empire. But it did not work out. A powerful baron called Hugh, Lord of Lusignan, had already been promised that Isabella would be his wife when she came of age. When Hugh heard that John had married her, he was furious. Hugh demanded compensation from John. He refused so Hugh complained about John’s behaviour to King Philip.
Philip ordered John to appear before a French court but he refused, and in 1202, Philip ordered that John should lose his lands in France. Philip made John’s nephew Arthur Lord of Aquitaine, Maine and Anjou and declared war against John. At first John was more successful and managed to capture Arthur. But what happened next did great damage to John’s reputation. He ordered that Arthur be murdered. This murder caused widespread disgust among the barons in England and France. Things went from bad to worse for John. He lost control of Aquitaine and lost the region of Norway.
John spent most of his reign trying to win back these French lands. John raised a tax called scutage. This was a tax raised by the King when he wanted. Barons would have to provide a certain amount of armed nights of the equivalent amount in money depending on the size of their land. John asked the barons for six times more Scutage than the last two Kings put together. This was not against the law, but it greatly annoyed the barons. He also put Relief tax up. Relief was a tax played for by the Baron’s sons where they played a kind of ‘inheritance tax’.
He also sold important positions at court to the highest bidder, ignoring advice, and even to foreigners. To enforce these taxes, King John ‘invited’ the Baron’s sons to Court. They would not come home if the Barons did not pay their taxes. When at the Court, they were treated like royalty, but if the Baron does not pay up, the King executes their son and strips the Baron of his knighthood. Kings had to work with Church leaders, not against them. In 1207 the job of Archbishop of Canterbury was vacant. The Pope did not like John’s choice and instead appointed Simon Langton.
John was not pleased with the Pope’s choice. He confiscated the land of the Archbishop of Canterbury and banished the monks attached to the Cathedral. The Pope retaliated in 1208 by imposing an interdict on England. This meant that all the churches had to shut. John responded by confiscating the property of any priest who carried out the interdict. In 1209 John was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. This meant that he could not go to church or take part in any church services. One of John’s ambitions was to regain land in France. In 1206 he had one success in winning back Gascony.
He was determined to get Normandy as well. In 1214 he gambled. He gambled. He allied with the Counts of Boulogne and Otto of Brunswick to launch an attack on Poitou to try and win back Normandy. His armies were totally defeated at Bouvines. The result was that he lost credibility as an army leader, and most of the taxes he had raised had been wasted. John was in a weak position. To him each of his actions so far might have seemed sensible and fair. To others in England they looked like mistakes. They thought that John was either dangerous or incompetent.
Some of the leading barons met to discuss their grievances against John. They decided they needed a charter, agreed by the king that would secure their rights and would control the king. They sent soldiers to occupy London and John was forced to negotiate. On 19th June 1215, at Runnymede near Windsor, Magna Carta was signed. At the beginning of his reign, John tried to tie all loose ends, as it were. He was unlucky. His marriage with Isabella of Angouleme, that would have been very useful in controlling his Angevin empire, fell through. He tried to recapture Normandy, but was totally defeated.
All of these were good ideas, but they just didn’t work out. King John’s leadership was a failure; he alienated his barons, and got excommunicated by the Pope. But despite all these negative things, King John’s reign was so important because of the Magna Carta. Not only was this the first time that the King’s power had been limited, but the whole of our judicial system that we know the day he based on the Magna Carta. I think that King John’s leadership should not be remembered for his failures, but for the impact on life that we know today.