Magna Carta

Concesserimus libertates quasdam scriptas in magna carta nostra de libertatibus.

Magna Carta, Magna Carta, does she still exist? -- Tony Hancock

The great principles of freedom and the rights of man are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence. -- Sir Winston Churchill, address to the Americans, 1946

As I wrote to my lovely Chinese friend Janna after viewing the copy of the Magna Carta on exhibition at Lincoln Castle, it is the document on democracy and human rights.

The original Magna Carta, drawn up in 1215, was to influence the US Constitution and the UN Charter.

Although drawn up in 1215 between King John and the English Barons, the Magna Carta was surprisingly modern in the rights it bestowed.

Magna Carta (Latin for "Great Charter", literally "Great Paper") was drawn up in 1215 to limit the power of English Monarchs, especially King John, from absolute rule.

Magna Carta was the result of disagreements between the Pope and King John and his barons over the rights of the king: Magna Carta required the king to renounce certain rights and respect certain legal procedures, and to accept that the will of the king could be bound by law.

Magna Carta is widely considered to be the first step in a long historical process leading to the rule of constitutional law, much of English Common Law can be traced back to Magna Carta.

The gist of the gripe the Barons had with King John was that he had too much power and they too little.

The Barons had the populace behind them, in as much as anyone took any notice of the populace.

The faults of King John were three-fold.

The patience of the Barons ran thin and they seized London.

The Barons forced King John to agree to a document known as the 'Articles of the Barons', to which his Great Seal was attached in the meadow at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John on 19 June 1215.

A formal document to record the agreement between King John and the barons was created by the royal chancery on 15 July 1215 - this was the original Magna Carta.

Copies of the original were made for all interested parties.

No sooner had John signed, than he reneged, claiming he had been coerced into signing. He was backed by the Pope.

This led to the First Barons' War.

Just over a year later, with no resolution to the war, the king died, being succeeded by his 9-year old son, Henry III. The Charter (Carta) was reissued again, with some revisions, in 1216, 1217 and 1225.

The most contentious clause for King John was the infamous clause 61, known as the "security clause", the longest clause in the Charter.

Clause 61 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 need be. This was based on a medieval legal practice known as distrait, which was commonly done, but it was the first time it had been applied to a monarch. In addition, the King was obliged take an oath of loyalty to the committee.

Since, moveover, for God and the amendment of our kingdom and for the better allaying of the quarrel that has arisen between us and our barons, we have granted all these concessions, desirous that they should enjoy them in complete and firm endurance forever, we give and grant to them the underwritten security, namely, that the barons choose five and twenty barons of the kingdom, whomsoever they will, who shall be bound with all their might, to observe and hold, and cause to be observed, the peace and liberties we have granted and confirmed to them by this our present Charter, so that if we, or our justiciar, or our bailiffs or any one of our officers, shall in anything be at fault towards anyone, or shall have broken any one of the articles of this peace or of this security, and the offense be notified to four barons of the foresaid five and twenty, the said four barons shall repair to us (or our justiciar, if we are out of the realm) and, laying the transgression before us, petition to have that transgression redressed without delay. And if we shall not have corrected the transgression (or, in the event of our being out of the realm, if our justiciar shall not have corrected it) within forty days, reckoning from the time it has been intimated to us (or to our justiciar, if we should be out of the realm), the four barons aforesaid shall refer that matter to the rest of the five and twenty barons, and those five and twenty barons shall, together with the community of the whole realm, distrain and distress us in all possible ways, namely, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, and in any other way they can, until redress has been obtained as they deem fit, saving harmless our own person, and the persons of our queen and children; and when redress has been obtained, they shall resume their old relations towards us. And let whoever in the country desires it, swear to obey the orders of the said five and twenty barons for the execution of all the aforesaid matters, and along with them, to molest us to the utmost of his power; and we publicly and freely grant leave to everyone who wishes to swear, and we shall never forbid anyone to swear. All those, moveover, in the land who of themselves and of their own accord are unwilling to swear to the twenty five to help them in constraining and molesting us, we shall by our command compel the same to swear to the effect foresaid. And if any one of the five and twenty barons shall have died or departed from the land, or be incapacitated in any other manner which would prevent the foresaid provisions being carried out, those of the said twenty five barons who are left shall choose another in his place according to their own judgment, and he shall be sworn in the same way as the others. Further, in all matters, the execution of which is entrusted,to these twenty five barons, if perchance these twenty five are present and disagree about anything, or if some of them, after being summoned, are unwilling or unable to be present, that which the majority of those present ordain or command shall be held as fixed and established, exactly as if the whole twenty five had concurred in this; and the said twenty five shall swear that they will faithfully observe all that is aforesaid, and cause it to be observed with all their might. And we shall procure nothing from anyone, directly or indirectly, whereby any part of these concessions and liberties might be revoked or diminished; and if any such things has been procured, let it be void and null, and we shall never use it personally or by another.

Of the original Magna Carta, only four remain in existence: two held by the British Library and one each by Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral. That owned by Lincoln Cathedral is currently on loan to Lincoln Castle.

One of those present at the Runnymede signing was the Bishop of Lincoln.

Magna Carta guaranteed political liberties and contained clauses providing for a church free from domination by the monarchy, reforming law and justice, and controlling the behaviour of royal officials.

A large part of Magna Carta was copied, almost 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.

Magna Carta consists of 63 different clauses or articles, the majority of which are only of relevance to the 13th century. For example, it repealed certain royal taxes that were unpopular and reduced the amount of hunting land that was royal and thus off-limits to most people. Or for example the rights of merchants, as in Article 41:

All merchants shall have safe and secure exit from England, and entry to England, with the right to tarry there and to move about as well by land as by water, for buying and selling by the ancient and right customs, quit from all evil tolls, except (in time of war) such merchants as are of the land at war with us. And if such are found in our land at the beginning of the war, they shall be detained, without injury to their bodies or goods, until information be received by us, or by our chief justiciar, how the merchants of our land found in the land at war with us are treated; and if our men are safe there, the others shall be safe in our land.

One of the most important clauses that was to have the long lasting effect was Article 39:

No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.

This meant the King must judge individuals according to the law, and not according to his own will.

Equally important was Article 40:

To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.

The importance of these two clauses, the right to be judged by one's peers, is felt in all English speaking countries today.

These two clauses also have a relevance today with the authoritarian government of Tony Blair, followed by Gordon Brown, trying to remove the right to trial by jury for all but the most serious of offences and to effectively abolish the Habeas Corpus for those suspected of terrorism offences.

The influence of Magna Carta can be seen in the US Bill of Rights, which enumerates various rights of the people and restrictions on government power:

No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

During the Second World War, the Lincoln copy of Magna Carta resided in the US. In 1941, Winston Churchill offered Magna Carta to the US to draw them into the war. The offer came to naught, Lincoln Cathedral refused to release it, by December 1941, the US was dragged into the war following the attack on Pearl Harbour. Magna Carta was returned to Lincoln in 1946. [see Churchill's City War Plot Revealed and Memo to Churchill: Ask US to Accept Magna Carta as a Symbol and a Seal of Our Compact to Fight to the Last Against the Forces of Evil]

The American Bar Association acknowledged the importance of Magna Carta and the debt American law and constitutionalism had to Magna Carta when in 1957 they erected a monument at Runnymede.

December 2007, the only copy of Magna Carta in private hands, sold at auction in New York for 1.6 million.


Lincolnshire ~ Lincoln ~ Lincoln Castle ~ Lincoln Cathedral
(c) Keith Parkins 2005-2007 -- December 2007 rev 4