The Historical Context of Magna Carta

...or, Those Revolting Barons

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

Part 2

As I have detailed in Part I, relations between King John and his barons had grown increasingly strained, as John attempted to raise money for his military expeditions through taxation and continued in controversy with the Church over his appointments to bishoprics. One of these men, Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, was effectively ruler of England while John campaigned against Philip Augustus in France. When John returned in 1214, his dreams of regaining Normandy abandoned, he found the barons had grown even more hostile in the face of des Roches' de facto rule. Here is one of the first instances of what would become a familiar refrain in the thirteenth century--that the king gave too much power to foreign favourites; des Roches was not born on English soil, but hailed from the Touraine. The barons now feared that the bureaucracy and administrative power instituted by Henry II could be used--and abused--and thus could further erode their power in favour of the king's. The barons gradually sorted themselves into two parties--a group of moderates willing to negotiate, and another group who would eventually rise in revolt. John countered the move by taking the Cross of a Crusader--which brought him even further under Papal protection. The Great Charter was the result of mediation by the moderates between the rebel extremists and the King.

The crucial question would become whether the king was above the law--or, like all others in England, bound to it, even when he himself had made it? The issuance of the Charter confirmed that in England at least, the latter was to be true. John, however, probably saw the signing of the Charter at Runnymede in 1215 as only a stopgap measure, designed to buy time enough to gain back the momentum and crush the rebellious barons--especially those in the north, which had been particularly exploited by John in the matters of remarriage of widows, wardships, and often enormous fees required before a baronial heir could inherit property. Many of these particular abuses were forbidden outright by the Charter, as we shall see momentarily, as was the seizure of property or judgment without consultation, but the northern barons had no reason to trust John, and rightly so, since John promptly wrote to the Pope to get the Charter annulled. The Pope's favourable response and the excommunication of the rebel barons led to outright civil war; the barons employing French mercenaries to aid their cause. In the midst of this, John died on October 18, 1216.

It is difficult to say whether the Charter would have ever survived had John not died when he did. However, his death left a nine year old boy, Henry III, as King--and a group of loyalist moderate barons who had signed the Charter in control. These barons--led by William the Marshal, now the Earl of Pembroke and aided by the papal legate Guala and Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, now took steps to ensure that a moderate position would be assumed. The Charter was reissued in 1216, many of its more radical passages excised, but the essential grant of liberties largely intact. After a royalist victory at Lincoln in 1217 and the excommunication of King Louis of France by a sympathetic Pope encouraged the French mercenaries to leave England, the regents made peace with the rebel barons, further fine-tuning the Charter and issuing a separate Charter of the Forests to deal with the complaints over the extension of forest law. What would eventually become the definitive version of the Charter was issued in 1225.

The text of Magna Carta is available elsewhere. I would draw your attention to some of its salient chapters:

--Articles 2-6 were designed to remedy the abuses of wardship and to end the high fines demanded by past Kings in favour of the ancient set relief (or fee) of 100 for the barony of an earl or 100s for a knight's fee. Guardians of wards were bound to maintain the property of the ward and not to destroy or exploit it, and marriages were not to be contracted without the consent of the family of the ward.
--Articles 7-8, similarly, were designed to stop the pressure applied to a widow to remarry (which usually took the form of refusing to settle her dower--the portion of her husband's property, usually 1/3, of which she was granted use until her death.
---Article 12 restricted the causes for which scutage could be levied "without common counsel" of the realm (ransom of his person, the knighting of his eldest son or the first marriage of his eldest daughter); this was directed at John's excessive taxation for his campaigns on the Continent. Article 14 continues this by naming who would be summoned to obtain counsel--archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons. Article 15, interestingly enough, places the same restrictions on obtaining aid--ransom, the knighting of the eldest son or the first marriage of the eldest daughter-- on all others in England, thus ensuring that the King was not placed under more restriction than other nobles.
Continuing this trend, article 52 establishes a council of 25 barons to judge in matters of disputed land claims; the role of the council as a distraint upon the King is further explained in article 61 (although it is clear here that the council is truly only empowered to act in the dispute between John and the barons and is not given further jurisdiction). These three articles, naming councils of greater nobles to approve certain matters and to act as a check against extension of royal power beyond that stipulated elsewhere in the Charter and in written law, is often seen as the seed from which the institution of Parliament would eventually grow under Edward I. However, it is important to note that Magna Carta did not result in the establishment of permanent councils of barons; these councils remained largely arbitrary through the reign of Henry III and were one of the issues in the baronial revolt of 1258-65.
--Article 13 confirmed the liberties of London (which had sided with the rebels) along with those of other cities and towns. These liberties, of course, placed restrictions on royal power within cities and towns and allowed city and town officials considerable jurisdiction within their own walls.
--Articles 17-32 all concern property law. 17-19 set out standards for courts of common pleas and assizes, while 20 set limits on fines and 21 ensured that earls and barons could only be judged and have fines assessed by their peers. Most of the rest ensured that property could not be arbitrarily seized. Once again, these addressed many specific abuses of John.
--What is often called the "meat" of the charter is contained in Articles 38-40: Article 38 forbid trial by unsupported allegation, without credible witnesses; article 39 forbid imprisonment, disseisment, outlawry, or exile without judgment by one's peers or by the "law of the land". Article 40 provided that for no person would justice be sold or delayed. These three provisions, along with those concerning land tenure, probably had more direct effect on the average Englishman than did the entire rest of the charter. (It is, however, to be noted that these provisions still applied only to "free" men.) These three articles continued the trend towards standardization of legal procedure that I noted last week and would have long-term effects on the fair and universal application of royal justice. Article 45 is related to these, in that it ensured that judges and others with judicial jurisdiction should actually know the laws; this probably served to continue the trend towards a professional judiciary. Articles 41 and 42 allowed for the freedom of merchants to travel without excessive taxation.
--Articles 44, 47, and 48 "rolled back the clock" on forestation of lands, removing all which had been forested by John and calling inquiries into abuses of forest law. They would later be supplemented by the Charter of the Forest of 1217, which would further ensure that forests, too, would be subject to standardized laws and courts.
--Articles 50 and 51 provided for the dismissal of some of the king's "foreign favourites", along with the removal of foreign mercenaries--very clearly an article targeted directly at John. Articles 51-53 likewise address specifically Welsh and Scottish grievances against John.
Finally, article 60 binds all overlords to extend the same liberties to their vassals as the King has extended to them. Being essentially a feudal contract, the Charter was to be observed by all parties if it was to work.

As I think you can see, much of the charter is concerned with the relief of very specific grievances against King John, although many of the articles had a long-term significance likely not foreseen by either John or the barons. Although the council of barons stipulated in the charter did not actually coalesce into a permanent council, its inclusion in the charter ensured that in the future, kings who attempted to rule arbitrarily would be called into question, as happened in the second baronial revolt of 1258-65--which likewise resulted in a royalist victory, but also in a further evolution of these principles and the beginnings of the extension of privilege of consultation beyond barons to simple knights. These people were regularly summoned after the royalist victory in 1265 until Henry's death in 1272 to advise on important matters of state, mostly concerning the settlements of property claims of the families of the rebels. Edward I began the practice of summoning these people twice yearly at what was now being called "parliament" to deal with major issues such as taxation and foreign treaties, clearly recognizing the importance of cultivating the support of the barons in order to accomplish his own objectives. Magna Carta did not create Parliament--but it did make it possible.

Bibliography:

Berman, Harold J. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Harding, Alan. England in the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Holt, J.C. Magna Charta Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.

Powicke, Maurice. The Thirteenth Century: 1216-1307. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

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