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Information about the Magna Carta

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Magna Carta

Why was the Magna Carta important?

  • The purpose of the Magna Carta was to curb the King and make him govern by the old English laws that had prevailed before the Normans came. The Magna Carta was a collection of 37 English laws - some copied, some recollected, some old and some new. It is considered to be the beginning of constitutional government in England. The Magna Carta demonstrated that the power of the king could be limited by a written grant.
  • Article 39 (changed to Article 29 in the later version that became a statute) established that the government (king) cannot deprive anyone (originally "freemen" but later expanded) of life, liberty, and property without due process of the law. These individual rights were later written into Amendments 5 and 6 of the U.S. Constitution.
  • The Magna Carta is also a root of the English constitutional principle of "no taxation without representation" which featured strongly in the motivation for the American Revolution. It stipulated that no taxation, except feudal dues, could be levied by the monarch without the consent of Parliament. Over the following centuries this led to an expanding role for Parliament in the government of the realm, and to parliamentary democracy as it is known today.

Some Key Provisions of the Magna Carta

  • The Church was to be free from royal interference, especially in the election of bishops
  • Taxes - No taxes except the regular feudal dues were to be levied, except by the consent of the Great Council, or Parliament
  • The right to due process which led to Trial by Jury
  • Weights and Measures - All weights and measures to be kept uniform throughout the realm

Copies of the Magna Carta; Reissues

There are four copies of the Magna Carta from 1215. Originally there had been at least thirteen. It didn't seem very important at the time, and the few that survived did so by neglect rather than design. It came to be called Magna Carta (the Great Charter) to distinguish it from another charter dealing with the Royal Forests, not because it was considered important. If anything, Magna Carta was seen as an evolving document, reissued when necessary to calm rebellion or answer specific demands. It was reissued three times while Henry III was a child and then again in 1237 when he was an adult.

Events that lead up to the Magna Carta

  • 1205: King John quarrels with Pope Innocent III about who should be archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope wants Stephen Langton, but King John swears Langton should never come to England.
  • 1209: Pope retaliates, excommunicates King John and bans all church services in all parish churches.
  • King John gives in. Innocent III makes the king and people pay him money whenever he demands.
  • Taxes levied by King John are extortionate. His reprisals against defaulters are ruthless and his idea of justice is considered avaricious
  • 1212: King John imposes taxes on Barons in attempts to regain lost lands of Aquitaine, Poitou and Anjou.
  • King John quarrels with Barons over his methods of ruling England.
  • Barons and Stephen Langton decide to curb the King, and make him govern by old English laws that prevailed before the Normans came. Demands of the Barons are documented in the 'Articles of the Barons' in January 1215
  • Barons take up arms against King John.
  • May 1215: Barons capture London.
  • June: In full armor, Barons take King John by surprise at Windsor. The king agrees to meet at Runnymede.
  • 10 June 1215: King John signs and seals the document.
  • June 15: King John sets his seal to the Magna Carta.
  • June 17: Barons sign their vow to enforce it.
  • June 19: Barons renew oaths of fealty to King John.
  • July 19: The royal chancery creates a formal document recording the agreement. Copies are sent throughout the land.

But then... King John goes to war against the barons who had said they would be surety for him keeping his promises, breaking his oath not to do so.

Surety Barons

Twenty-five barons "stood surety for" - vowed to enforce - Magna Carta. They are known as the Surety Barons of the Magna Carta. They were severely punished by the church and the king for taking their stand.

From the outset, the barons were aware of the danger that, once King John had left Runnymede, he would renege on the Charter on the grounds that it constituted an illegitimate infringement of his authority. The barons came up with a novel solution to the problem in the famous clause 61, the security clause. In it, King John conceded that:

"the barons shall choose any twenty-five barons of the realm as they wish, who with all their might are to observe, maintain and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which we have granted".

Any infringement of the Charter’s terms by the king or his officials was to be notified to any four of the committee; and, if within forty days no remedy or redress had been offered, then the king was to empower the full committee to "distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely by seizing castles, lands and possessions" until he made amends. In this remarkable clause, then, the charter introduced the novelty of obliging the king to sanction and institute armed action against none other than himself. The means by which they sought to achieve this was use of the common law doctrine of distraint, the means by which debts were collected from debtors and malefactors obliged to answer for their actions in court.

Since the clause anticipated the election of the twenty-five at some time in the future, their names are not actually listed in the Charter. Consequently, the committee’s composition is known principally from the list given later by Matthew Paris, the celebrated chronicler of St. Albans Abbey.

It is noteworthy that these men were all layfolk, and for the most part members of the hard-line baronial opposition to the king. No bishop or other Churchman appears. One, William Hardel, was not a baron: he acted as Surety on behalf of the City of London, of which he was mayor in 1215.

Illustrious Men

Sixteen "Illustrious Men" are listed in the preamble to the Magna Carta as having advised King John. They ranged from senior royal officials to barons, and included a ruler of a large part of Scotland who also had lands in England. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, was named first, even before King John's half-brother William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury.

It would be a mistake to think that all of them were staunch supporters of John. Some of them joined in rebellion in the months following the signing of the Magna Carta.

Churchmen from Preamble of the Magna Carta

The rights of the church are featured prominently in the Magna Carta and there is a list of churchmen in the preamble. They too advised King John and they influenced the way Magna Carta was written.

  • Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England and cardinal of the holy Roman Church
  • Henry archbishop of Dublin
  • William of London
  • Peter of Winchester
  • Jocelyn of Bath and Glastonbury
  • Hugh of Lincoln
  • Walter of Worcester
  • William of Coventry
  • Benedict of Rochester
  • Pandulf, subdeacon and member of the household of our lord the Pope
  • brother Aymeric (master of the Knights of the Temple in England)

Sources for Magna Carta outside WikiTree

  • Magna Carta, Wikipedia: overview of the history of Magna Carta with footnotes, images and linked list of additional resources.




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