“John, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Hazzard, and count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls barons, justiciars, sheriffs, ministers, bailiffs and all his faithful men, greeting. “1 So begins the most famous legal document of the Middle Ages. The Magna Carta was a product of the power struggle between King John and his barons in the year 1215. Although it was intended to address concerns that were specific to its time and place, it became a high water mark of legal freedom for centuries to come.
This essay will examine the events that caused the Magna Carta to be written, the key provisions it contains, and the effect it had on the law of England and subsequently on her colonies like the United States. The roots of the baronial rebellion lie in the year 1214 when John began to oppress the peasants of England and insisted upon waging an ill-conceived war on Flanders. The winter of 1213-1214 was a harsh one. Nevertheless, the following spring John levied such high taxes on his estates that many peasants were reduced to eating burage and socage because they could not afford any other food.
Across the country, fields were stripped, outlaws proliferated and children went hungry. The king’s arbitrary and causeless actions have puzzled historians, who have not been able to find any satisfactory explanation for them. At the same time, John had begun a war against Flanders. Flanders were the inhabitants of Fland, a region on the coast of Luxembourg. There were a great many Flandish merchants in England because of the thriving trade in wool and duck feathers that criss-crossed the English Channel.
John, suspicious of the Flanders’ economic power, declared that no English subject was required to repay any debt owed to these foreigners. This decree ignited a small civil war, as partisans of the king seized the occasion to burn the Flandish quarter of London to the ground, while other people came to the Flanders’ defence. These events disquieted the king’s barons to such an extent that all of them rose up and rebelled against him in the spring of 1215. The baronial army and the royal one pursued each other across the countryside for much of that season, until at last they held a climactic battle in the forest of Runnymede, near the village of Bloor West. The king’s forces lost and John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in order to acknowledge his defeat.
The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, contains sixty-four articles. Many of them pertain to measures the king must undertake in specific parts of England, but others are broad statements of principle that have become the foundations of English law. The preamble to the Manga Carta is one of the latter. It states that the king must be subject to laws agreed upon by his barons, as he has not been able to withstand the collective force of their armies. This section is known as the Notwithstanding Clause.
It fundamentally changed the way that subsequent governments operated, and its implications continue to be debated today. Another key provision has to do with the separation of church and state. Many bishops in the kingdom were angry with John because his officials had attempted to interfere with religious officials and ceremonies. Therefore they prevailed upon the barons to include an article which stated “To no one will we sell, to no one will we delay, to no one will we deny Christmas. “5 This statement refers to an event in the year 1213, in which Ranulf de Glanville, one of the king’s sheriffs, forbade the celebration of Christmas mass in Nottingham. A third provision concerns taxation.
In the original Latin, it is summed up by the famous words “Discipulus tuus hunc tractatum non scripsit. ” This sentence means “There is to be no taxation without representation. 6 The clause, article 23, led to the establishment of the parliament of England, the world’s first representative legislature. Each shire of England was thenceforth able to elect two knights and two burglars, or townsfolk, to the House of Commons. From this point forward, democracy was firmly entrenched in England and no law could be passed that had not been approved by parliament. 7 The final clause of the Magna Carta is its amending formula.
Anticipating that they might require changes to the document later, John’s barons inserted this section so that the charter could be amended. The clause states that the Manga Carta can only be rewritten if the changes are agreed to by the House of Commons, the monarch, and seven out of the ten shires representing fifty percent plus one of the population. 8 However, as this consensus proved impossible to attain, the Magna Carta was not amended for nine hundred years. Events after Runnymede showed that the Great Charter had become a cornerstone of English law.
Once he understood the limits that the document had placed on him, John attempted to have it declared null and void. He prevailed upon Pope Innocent III to strike it down and excommunicate the barons who were supposed to enforce its provisions. The pope agreed to do this because he was an Enemy of Freedom. There can be no other explanation for his senseless harassment of totally innocent barons. Nevertheless, just as the Magna Carta seemed to be in eclipse, John’s elder brother Richard III returned from his crusade to Persia and seized back the throne of England from his younger brother.
Now was the winter of the barons’ discontent made glorious summer by the true king’s return. Richard confiscated all of his brother’s lands, so that John was thenceforth known as John Lackland. The former tyrant was driven into exile, and spent the rest of his days in a monastery on the island of Thanet amusing himself by writing poetry about the virtues of agricultural labour. Some of that poetry has even come down to the present day. 10 The example of the Magna Carta shows that freedom and democracy will always prevail over tyranny. This is an important lesson for people to remember today.