Unlock Democracy Briefing on the Magna Carta - what did it do? Why is it important? And why should we care now?
Magna CartaExecutive SummaryThe Magna Carta, written in 1215, was an agreement between King John I and the powerful barons who had challenged his rule. In it, John promised to restore the rights to property and to a fair trial by jury that the nobility had enjoyed before his reign, and to stop his abuse of royal power. While the Magna Carta was not concerned with the rights of ordinary English people most of whom were peasants without property it contained provisions protecting against arrest or punishment without trial and against excessive punishments, and guaranteeing that the king would not deny or sell justice to any of his subjects. These protections helped form the basis of British human rights law, and over the centuries they were gradually extended to all citizens. The Magna Carta also established a Council of Barons to enforce it; this was the first time a group of British subjects had the legal right to check the power of the king, and the Council paved the way for an independent Parliament. Finally, the Magna Carta has influenced the development of foreign and international human rights laws, such as the UNs Universal Declaration on Human Rights.Why was the Magna Carta signed?King John I had a series of disputes with his barons. John was enlarging the English army, developing a new navy, and embarking on wars to expand his territories. To raise money for his military projects, the king levied crippling taxes on the English people, particularly on the nobility. He also extracted money from the nobles in other ways: John forced the nobility to pay when they inherited an estate, fined people heavily for minor crimes (including for failing to pay their debts), sold official positions, demanded that nobles who didnt do military service pay a tax, used his position as the legal guardian of his barons widows and orphans to profit from their estates or sell them in marriage, and accepted bribes.
When King John tried to interfere with the selection of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Innocent III placed all of England under interdict, meaning that the entire country was cast out of the Catholic Church, and no religious sacraments or rituals could be performed. Eventually, John gave England to the pope, making in a papal territory, so that the pope would lift the interdict. This angered the barons even further.
A group of barons declared war on the king and eventually forced him to make a series of concessions, set out in a document called the Articles of the Barons. On 15 June 1215, John sealed these concessions into law as the Magna Carta, or Great Charter.What is in the Magna Carta?
The Magna Carta is more like a peace treaty than a bill of rights. Most of its provisions are promises John made to his barons to restrict the use of his power over them. Whats more, the Magna Carta didnt establish most of the rights that are listed in it; most of these had already been established in the Charter of Liberties, signed by Henry I, and in other royal charters made under previous kings. John broke many of these agreements, and the barons wanted to make sure not only that the agreements were re-established, but that a way to enforce them was put in place.Finally, contrary to popular belief, the Magna Carta was not intended to protect the rights of ordinary people. A few provisions refer to the rights of free men, but in 1215, that was a small, select group. The majority of English people were serfs, or peasants bound to serve the owner of the land they worked.
The Magna Carta covered several issues. Taxes and Property Rights: The Magna Carta prevented the king from levying taxes without his barons permission, except in a few special situations, and from demanding goods or services without payment from his free subjects. It also limited the power of the barons to levy taxes on their own feudal subjects, and protected debtors from having their land seized to pay their debts, except as a last resort. Inheritance: The Magna Carta protected the widows and heirs of barons from having to pay unreasonable fees to receive their inheritances, and ensured that they would receive enough money to live on even if their husbands or fathers died in debt, as well as making the royal officials who managed the estates of underage heirs accountable for how the estates were run. It also limited the power of the king to force the widows and children of barons to marry, a power John had abused for his own profit. Justice and the Courts: The Magna Carta set up permanent courts for different kinds of cases, and forced royal officials who accused someone of a crime to produce witnesses to prove their case. It protected free men from fines that would ruin them or that were out of proportion to their crime, and protected nobles from being fined except by the rest of the nobility. On the other hand, the Magna Carta also established that priests could be fined under the same rules as lay people.One of the most significant and lasting clauses in the Magna Carta is Clause 39, which protects free men from being arrested or punished in any way unless the punishment has been agreed by a jury of their equals or decreed by law. This is called the right of habeas corpus. John also had to promise that, To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice. Making Peace: Some of the provisions of the Magna Carta undid things John had done as king, especially during the war with the barons, that the barons considered unfair. For example, John had to restore public land he had claimed as royal property; investigate charges that his officials had mismanaged his properties; return any money or property he had taken from the barons as punishment for crimes that had never been properly tried in a court; and sack Gerard de Athe, a nobleman who had been Johns right-hand man and had enforced a lot of Johns unpopular policies. Gerard and his family were banned from ever holding public office again.To make peace with the barons, John was also forced to dismiss his army of foreign soldiers and mercenaries, and to release the hostages he had taken during the war (including the children of English nobles and Welsh and Scottish royalty).
Existing Freedoms: The government of the city of London, along with other local governments, had always had certain freedoms, mainly having to do with free trade; the Magna Carta confirmed these. It also confirmed that both English subjects and citizens of other countries had the right to enter and leave England freely, unless they had been legally arrested or exiled, or came from a country at war with England. Most importantly, John re-established the independence of the English Church, including its right to elect its own leaders and officials. The Council of Barons: One of the most important steps the Magna Carta took was setting up a council of twenty-five barons to enforce the rights it granted. The council had the right to challenge the king if he or any of his officials broke any of the provisions of the Magna Carta, and if the king refused to make reparations, the council could force him to comply by seizing his castles, lands and property. The Magna Carta even obliged the public to take the councils side against the king if this happened.The council wasnt elected by the people when members died or left, the remaining members chose noblemen to replace them but by setting up a group of subjects with the power to hold the king to account, and to punish him if he didnt abide by the law, the Magna Carta paved the way for the later creation of Parliament.Why was the Magna Carta important at the time?The Magna Carta didnt remain law for very long. With the popes support, King John declared the Magna Carta invalid in September of 1216 and the war with the barons continued. When John died in 1216, his young son, Henry, needed the barons support to keep the throne, and so Henrys guardian issued an edited version of the Magna Carta. The adult King Henry III re-issued a final version of the Magna Carta in 1225, though it didnt officially become law until 1295.While most of the rights in the Magna Carta, like the protections against unreasonable taxes and fees, had already been established by the Charter of Liberties, and others had been established by previous monarchs (Johns father, Henry II, first set up the system of trial by jury), the Magna Carta included one significant provision that had never been put into law before: the Council of Barons. This turned the Magna Carta from a list of intentions and promises, like the Charter of Liberties, into a document that could actually be enforced on the king. The Magna Carta meant that the kings power was no longer absolute, and he was no longer above the law of the land.
Why has the Magna Carta been important in UK history?The Magna Carta has shaped the development of human rights law in England and the UK, and also established the role of the Council of Barons and later Parliament in limiting and monitoring the power of the king. The influence of the Magna Carta has been clear at several key points in British history. The English Civil War: In 1628, Parliament presented a document called the Petition of Right to King Charles I. The petition accused Charles of breaking the law, saying that the king had levied taxes without Parliaments consent, interfered with property rights, and arrested and detained his subjects without charge all things that were prohibited by the Magna Carta. The Petition of Right even quoted Clause 39 of the Magna Carta, which protects people from unlawful arrest or punishment. Charles initially agreed to investigate the accusations, but he never followed through on his promise, and the illegal taxes and arrests continued. This was a significant cause of the war between the king and Parliament.
When Parliament put Charles I on trial for