The Historical Context of Magna Carta

...or, Those Revolting Barons

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

Part 1

What is Magna Carta? Those who went through the British school systems, as well as many on this continent, would tell you that Magna Carta is the fundamental document of English Common law, upon which not only modern British law, but also modern Canadian and American law are based. But what does that really mean? The Great Charter (as Magna Carta translates into English) is not a constitution (as some Americans often mistakenly believe). It does not set up an entire parliamentary system (as some British folk often assume). When the Charter was drafted, those who did the work had no intentions of founding a new government. In fact, most of the articles in the Charter are specific responses to particular problems in early thirteenth century England. Many of them did have long-term implications in English history, but like any historical document, the articles received differing interpretations at each period. What I hope to give you in this article is the background to understand the specific circumstances that lead to the Barons' Revolt, which culminated in the signing of Magna Carta. And to do this, we must meet up with English Common Law.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 had imposed a fairly centralized royal government over the whole of England which proved to have staying power. William I instituted a pyramidal system of government that complemented to some extent the system already in place in the late Anglo-Saxon period. Two types of units were in place. The local units were a holdover from the Anglo-Saxon period, wherein the basic unit was the village (or vill); a group of vills formed a hundred, and a group of hundreds formed a shire or county. Both the hundred and the shire had their own courts, consisting of all the free men in that jurisdiction. There were also the feudal units, of which the basic unit was the manor; many manorial lords were able to successfully take over the hundred courts in their vicinity and turn them into de facto manorial courts. The king, who officially owned all secular land in England, distributed land to his tenants-in-chief (who usually had the rank of earl) in return for military service (and later, rents). These great magnates in turn gave land to their vassals in return for rent and military service, and so on down the line..

The system of law which grew out of this resulted in hundreds of courts claiming jurisdiction over various peoples. The tenant who found himself holding land from a number of overlords often found this quite confusing, not to mention the fact that particularly in manorial courts, the interpretation of customary law was at the whim of the lord of the manor--which could be a blessing or a burden, depending on the lord. The right to dispense law in one1s jurisdiction was seen by the lords as one of their fundamental rights over their vassals. It is not surprising to note that the great magnates of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, by right of these manorial courts, became powerful figures indeed. As time passed and these lands became more and more associated with particular families, it became clear that should a weak king come to the throne, chaos might ensue.

This, of course, happened during the reign of Stephen and Matilda (1135-1254). Upon the death of Henry I Stephen was able to seize the English throne before his cousin, Henry's daughter, could arrive in England. The next two decades saw each party gain the upper hand several times, only to have allied barons (earls and other magnates) switch alliances at crucial moments. Neither was strong enough to effectively control England by force or to gain the loyalty of a majority of the barons for any extended period of time.

When Matilda's son, Henry II, came to the throne upon the death of Stephen, he was determined not to make any of the same mistakes, but rather to clearly establish his authority over England. The method he chose was the extension of royal law--the birth of what would evolve into English common law. Prior to Henry II, royal law had been most prominent in the body of the curia regis -- the court consisting of the King, the great magnates, and the king's financial and administrative officers, including the justiciar (the king's official representative in legal matters and during his absence), the chancellor, and the exchequer. The king also delegated magnates to preside over local courts, but took a hands-off approach in most matters of justice not directly affecting the Crown. What Henry II did is to create a bureaucracy where none had existed before, staffed more and more by professionals, even if headed by a noble. And the courts were particularly affected by this "Royal jurisdiction and royal law" were imposed, says Berman "upon criminal and civil matters which had previously been under local and feudal jurisdiction ....and law". The result was the creation of a system of royal courts in each county, presided over by itinerant professional judges traveling a circuit. Methods of summoning defendants were standardized, as were penalties, and the concept of trial or decision by a jury of one1s neighbors was enshrined, as was the distinction between civil and criminal cases. Perhaps most significantly, the rather difficult concept of "seisin"-- the right to occupy land, regardless of ownership--was developed. One who had seisin of land had the right to occupy that land, no matter who was actually living there or who "owned" it. And disputes and land transfers thus came under the jurisdiction of royal courts--and left the control of feudal courts.

Thus, from a legal standpoint England at Henry II's death was a far different place than it had been when he ascended the throne. No longer were manorial courts to be given jurisdiction over criminal matters or land transfers--these were matters for the royal courts, which were increasingly staffed by professionals and which often ruled against the great magnates in favour of the Crown. The functions once performed by the curia regis were increasingly delegated to professional bureaucrats overseen by one of the great magnates. And Henry had taken other steps to increase his own holdings in England by placing large swaths of land into forest. Forest lands were not necessarily those with trees, but rather, were private hunting preserves in the direct possession of the King. Strict regulations about the cutting of trees, the killing of game, and the use of other fruits of the forest, such as nuts, were imposed on these regions, and the people who lived there came under the jurisdiction of special forest courts, rather than the local or feudal courts. Both lords and commoners reacted negatively to this forestation--the lords because of their loss of jurisdiction and hunting privileges; the commoners because of the loss of common lands. By the reign of John, this trend had become so pronounced that entire counties had been "forested".

Henry II had been a strong-willed king with the force of personality to impose his legal reforms on a reluctant England. The reforms were grudgingly accepted by most, since the courts quickly gained a reputation for fairness, but the great magnates grumbled at their loss of jurisdiction. Many of them could and did serve as justices or in the royal household, but it was increasingly clear that their independence was ebbing away. This would provide the backdrop for the reign of John and the first baronial war.

Richard I, Henry II's successor, continued his father's practices of extending royal authority, but was away on Crusade for most of his reign and so escaped the scrutiny which would fall upon his brother John. In many ways, John merely continued the trends set by his father and brother--but since he lacked the extraordinary force of character of Henry II or the heroic stature of Richard the Lionhearted, he is often seen as a "bad" king. In truth, he did nothing which had not been done before--but he lost the support of the great magnates which were crucial to the continuation of earlier policies by taking them perhaps too far. I have already mentioned the skyrocketing rate of forestation. John (like Richard before him) believed that the widow of one of his vassals was in a sense his to dispose of, and so often she would be married off to the richest suitor, at a handsome profit to the royal coffers. Heirs to baronial estates were often made to pay huge fines in order to gain possession, and the wardships of those who were underage were often sold to the highest bidder, or exploited by the Crown until the heir came of age--upon which the aforementioned huge fine was due.

On the political front, John seemed to believe that his own power was enough to run the country without the barons. After the loss of Normandy at the beginning of his reign, John became desperate to retain control of what Continental properties he still held, and lacking support of his barons, resorted to high taxes to raise the money for his campaigns. At the same time he had managed to get England placed under papal interdict and himself excommunicated by refusing to allow Stephen Langton, appointed archbishop of Canterbury by the Pope, into the kingdom. John simply used the opportunity to help himself to the wealth of the clergy, many of whom had left the country. In the face of increasing baronial unrest, however, John finally submitted to the papacy in 1213, making England officially a papal fief and gaining himself a powerful ally in the Pope.

On to Part 2.

Copyright 1997, Susan Carroll-Clark. All Rights Reserved.