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The Magna Carta

Ever wondered where the long road to achieving the rights of the common man began?

Guest blogger Graham Parton, explains.

If 2014 was the year we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, 2015 will be the year we commemorate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.

Signed in June 1215 the Magna Carta came to be a key marker in legal history that ultimately led to the establishment of our parliamentary and legal systems, it underpins the United States Constitution, it was used to justify the execution of a king, and enshrined the rights of villages not to build bridges they didn’t want.

It also put a cap on the number of royal weddings that the population should pay for and covered the costs of knighting a royal prince.

However it was not all plain sailing. The document was annulled within months of being written and lay dormant for centuries before being resurrected and reconfirmed in various manifestations.

The story of the Magna Carta begins during the brutal and autocratic 35-year reign of King Henry II who was crowned in 1154. Two years earlier he had married his third cousin, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had previously been married to the French King Louis VII.

That marriage had been annulled on the grounds of “consanguinity within the fourth degree”, meaning the bride and groom were fourth cousins. Despite the familial relationship Henry and Louis spent a considerable amount of time at war with each other and Henry regularly sent troops to France to take French land.

Overseas wars were expensive so Henry leaned heavily on the barons of England to fund these expeditions. The King’s power was absolute and unchallenged and much as they might not like it, the Barons had little choice but to supply men and supplies to the King’s army.

After Henry’s death his son Richard (later to be known as Richard the Lionheart) was crowned and he proved keen to continue the family tradition of foreign battles. He also reserved a special dislike for Jews, who were banned from his coronation and when some arrived with gifts, had them stripped and flogged. This anti-Semitic theme subsequently emerged in the text of the Magna Carta.

Richard did not spend much of his reign in England – there is even some doubt that he could speak English, and shortly after his coronation he set off across Europe to fight the crusades.

At one point he was captured near Vienna by Leopold V, Duke of Austria and only released when his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine raised a ransom of 65,000 pounds of silver, about two or three times the annual income of the English crown. To cover the cost laymen and clergy were forced to pay amounts equivalent to about a quarter of the value of their land, all the gold and silver treasures of the church were confiscated, and a series of new taxes were introduced.

Despite the heroic portrayal of Richard in most Robin Hood stories, his short reign was just as brutal as his fathers, marked by the ongoing transfer of funds from the poor to the rich, and the effect on the health and wellbeing of his subjects was a disaster.

After Richards’s death his brother John assumed the throne and brought with him the same attitude to power and income as his father and brother before him. His overseas expeditions were both expensive and unsuccessful, and in 1214 John returned to England after losing a series of battles in France.

By now the Barons were struggling to meet the costs of these crusades and a group decided they should take their grievances to the King. In June 1215 John agreed to meet some of them at Runnymede near Windsor, where he was presented with “The Articles of the Barons”, a document that would form the basis of the Magna Carta.

The document ran to sixty-three clauses and had been drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury who had previously been expelled from England. The Archbishop wasted no time ensuring the preservation of the church’s interest by making sure the first clause included the words “the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”

The rest of the clauses related to the rights and obligations of the King and the barons, particularly in relation to the protection of the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to justice and the issue of taxes.

Its primary purpose appeared to be to limit the extent to which the King could take the resources from the barons.

“No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent.

Neither we nor any royal official will take wood for our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner.”

Despite signing it, King John was unhappy with the document and within months had persuaded Pope Innocent III to annul it.

This led a group of rebellious barons, supported by the French army, to start the first Baron’s War. Within two years King John was dead and it fell to his son, Henry III to continue with the war.

Being only nine years old Henry had little say in the matter, but his court appointed protector, William Marshall the Earl of Pembroke promptly reissued an amended and shortened version of The Articles of the Barons, and with that peace was declared by the treaty of Lambeth in 1217.

In this treaty The Articles of the Barons was renamed the Magna Carta to distinguish it from a second document issued at the same time called the Charter of the Forest, the key difference between the two documents being that the Magna Carta dealt with the rights of barons, whereas the Charter of the Forest extended some of these rights to commoners.

Later in 1225 when Henry III funds were running low, he re-issued the Magna Carta again in exchange for new taxes, and his son Edward I repeated the exercise in 1297 only this time confirming it as part of England’s statute law.

One of the primary results of the Magna Carta was the creation of a “Council of Barons” which was the forerunner to our current parliamentary system

“The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter.”

As these early parliaments became more powerful the Magna Carta lost much of its practical significance and started to fall into disuse, but some of the original concepts retained their currency. Clauses 39 and 40 that state;

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

These two clauses would eventually become the writ of habeas corpus that endures to this day. Echoes of this concept are contained in the US Bill of Rights, which states;

“no person shall be deprived of life liberty or property without due process of law”

Other legal concepts have become the norm in our legal system and are widely accepted by our community. For example the comment below on severity of sentencing would be widely accepted now.

“For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood.”

And what of the anti-Semitism? Clause 10 severely limits the obligations towards Jewish creditors;

“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands.”

Clause 11 further limits the extent to which debts to Jews must be repaid but ends with the curious note “Debts owed to persons other than Jews are to be dealt with similarly” which basically means debts to Jews were treated exactly the same as debts to anyone else. One can only wonder at the negotiations that led to this strangely constructed clause.

Although the Magna Carta limited the power of the monarch, the concept of the monarch’s divine right to rule remained unchallenged for the next 450 years until King James I and his son Charles I attempted to stop discussion of the Magna Carta. This led to the English Civil War between the monarchists and the parliamentarians and culminated in a victory for the parliamentarians and the execution of Charles in 1649. Since then no English monarch has presumed the right to make laws or raise taxes.

There are however some curious exceptions. Although taxes cannot generally be raised by the King, they can be “…for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter.” Clearly the issue of Richards ransom was still fresh in the minds of the barons and the King as they negotiated the details. The Magna Carta if applied today would allow for taxation to cover the cost of knighting Prince Charles, and for the wedding of Anne, the Princess Royal in 1973, but no reimbursement would apply for the Princess’s second marriage in 1992.

Many of the clauses of the Magna Carta have all but disappeared from our legal system as they most likely reflected the issues of the day rather than enduring principles. For example;

No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.

No constable may compel a knight to pay money for castle-guard if the knight is willing to undertake the guard in person, or with reasonable excuse to supply some other fit man to do it. A knight taken or sent on military service shall be excused from castle-guard for the period of this service.

All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the seacoast.

People who live outside the forest need not in future appear before the royal justices of the forest in answer to general summonses, unless they are actually involved in proceedings or are sureties for someone who has been seized for a forest offence.

All evil customs relating to forests and warrens, foresters, warreners, sheriffs and their servants, or river-banks and their wardens, are at once to be investigated in every county by twelve sworn knights of the county, and within forty days of their enquiry the evil customs are to be abolished completely and irrevocably.

Clause 50 is quite clearly aimed at settling a score that no doubt mattered at the time to the barons.

We will remove completely from their offices the kinsmen of Gerard de Athée, and in future they shall hold no offices in England. The people in question are Engelard de Cigogné, Peter, Guy, and Andrew de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné, Geoffrey de Martigny and his brothers, Philip Marc and his brothers, with Geoffrey his nephew, and all their followers.

Finally the Magna Carta can be credited with the establishment of our current system of weights and measures, with the edict;

There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.

Few documents have endured for as long or had such a far-reaching impact as the Magna Carta.

Graham Parton is a freelance writer on matters of environment, heritage and history and can be contacted on


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  1. Andreas Bimba

    There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Surely more ells between the selvedges would have been better?

    “no person shall be deprived of life liberty or property without due process of law”

    It is amazing that such an important concept came out of all that greed, violence, bastardry and chaos of that era. Hopefully some good will come out of our present day excess of Abbottism?

  2. John Lord

    Darn good read that.

  3. Florence nee Fedup

    ” without due process of law”

    Abbott and MSM once again abandoned this again today it latest arrest 18 year old alleged terrorist.

  4. Geoff Andrews

    Habeas Corpus? Rigor Mortis!

  5. Annie B

    A really wonderful and interesting article Graham. ….

    Facsinating – that from so long ago, so many rules are still more or less, applicable in todays’ world. …

    Have long been interested in English History, but have only studied a very small part of the massive amount available, so far. ….

    Thank you for this insight, and this history lesson …. truly great.

  6. Pappinbarra Fox

    Firstly, little known fun fact- the magna carta was never signed. Second it is doubted that king john could even read or write. Let. Us not be loose with our facts eh? Otherwise right on!

  7. Patriciawa

    Thank you Graham Parton. I hadn’t before grasped the subtlety of the two different documents – one for the barons and another for commoners.

    “…………The Articles of the Barons was renamed the Magna Carta to distinguish it from a second document issued at the same time called the Charter of the Forest, the key difference between the two documents being that the Magna Carta dealt with the rights of barons, whereas the Charter of the Forest extended some of these rights to commoners………”

    Does that mean all my life I’ve been under the misapprehension that my civil rights against tyranny were guaranteed by the Magna Carta when in fact it was only for those bloody titled toffs. We commoners had to make do with this Charter of the Forest thing! So, what exactly am I guaranteed by that?

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