ORB Masthead with site navigation toolbar; see bottom 
of page for text version of toolbar

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

Magna Carta

Magna Carta (the Great Charter) is the most famous single document ever produced by the English government.

It is generally seen as a guarantee of human rights, the first in the long series that includes the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the American Bill of Rights, and the late comer in the field, the Canadian Charter of Rights. Magna Carta is in this sense a myth -- a timeless symbol that has been created by extracting the document from its original context, and made to serve purposes that its authors never had in mind.

In 1215, Magna Carta was part of an agreement of peace between rebellious barons and the king who had provoked them into rebellion. It tried to settle issues outstanding between the two parties. It attempted to set a standard for the behavior of the king's government towards his free subjects and to devise an enforcement procedure. As J.C. Holt, an authority on subject has said, Magna Carta was a failure: war came anyway, and very soon.

Magna Carta was saved from obscurity by a political accident that made it convenient for it to be reissued. Magna Carta attained its long-range symbolic role because it faced some of the great problems caused by the success of Angevin government.  The proponents of Magna Carta were reacting to the growth of royal power.  However, they  did not reject that growth.  They insisted, however, that the new style of royal government should work not just for the king's benefit, but for all free men of the realm. This is a respectable attitude to take towards government, and this attitude, more than the specific remedies of Magna Carta, is what has survived.

John's personality and military failures had much to do with the creation of Magna Carta. But the demand of the political classes for a charter of liberties from a powerful prince was a commonplace phenomenon in 12th and 13th century Europe. Such demands were usually made when the prince had just suffered a setback. For instance, in 1188, the king of Leon in Spain found it necessary to grant privileges to his vassals.   Similar charters were issued in Germany, Sicily, and France in the 13th and early 14th centuries.

In all these cases, subordinate but still important members of the political system, nobles, bishops, large urban corporations, were combining to limit the power of their rulers. They were not out to kill the king or dismantle the kingdom, but simply to make it work better. The resentment of princely government and the cure for that resentment were, paradoxically, closely related. The very success of princely government that created this opposition and even the form this opposition took.

First, princes and kings had made their governments more profitable and powerful through systemization. Bureaucracy made it possible to impose the royal will by means short of brute force. This kind of regularity in government created a further demand for it -- from the prince's subjects.

Second, strong rulers profited from their ability to grant privileges to their subjects for a price. They made it possible to buy the king's good will and dispensation from the rules his officers had devised. The granting of privileges created a demand for more privileges. The political classes felt that what some could buy should be available to all. Eventually this would lead to a demand for rights, for a change in the rules in the favor of the subjects. But even this demand presupposed the prince's ability to maintain a peaceful and orderly community in which those rights meant something.

Finally, the greater power of 12th and 13th century princes over all their subjects, and not just their immediate vassals, welded their subjects into a political class with certain common problems, fears, and interests. Princely power created a political public with a common interest in controlling the power of the prince.

Let me now illustrate those generality with specific examples (drawn from Holt).

Henry II had created special procedures so that questions over land -- vital to a landed aristocracy -- could be settled without private war. Juries were to be assembled to declare who had the better right to the land or, in some cases, who had most recently been dispossessed. People got used to this orderly manner of settling disputes, and they began to see it as a  pattern for resolving all kinds of disputes. Thus John was eventually faced with the demand that disagreements between him and his subjects should be settled not by will but by judgement -- not arbitrarily, but through some form of due process.

The granting of privileges was likewise an important aspect of Angevin government in England.  John could demand a variety of payments and services from his important subjects. For instance,  he could  require widows of his military tenants to remarry men of his choice -- a convenient way to reward valuable supporters; he could also extract relief, or death duty from the heirs of his vassals. John could directly exploit these rights, or he could profit from them by selling dispensations.

In 1199, for instance, the widow Nichola of Hermingford paid the king 100 pounds so that she should not be forced to marry again. The king granted this on condition that if she did decide to marry, she would do so on the king's advice.  Similarly, the king also took money on occasion to fix reasonable, rather than ruinous reliefs on estates.

The king could also sell privileges to those who were not his vassals, or even to whole communities.  Inhabitants of the "forest" suffered under close supervision of all their activities by royal foresters. Many people found it worth their while to pay the king to disafforest their district, so that they could get out from under that regulation.

For instance, in John's reign the wapentake of Ainsty in Yorkshire paid 100 pounds to have their wapentake entirely disafforested, that is, removed from the jurisdiction of the king's foresters.

This sale of privileges created a demand for more easily available privileges, and even that privileges that were generally available should be granted freely by the king.   It is no accident that Magna Carta contains several articles defending the rights of widows and restricting the power of foresters and their courts.

The power of the crown encouraged people to band together to buy communal privileges.
Towns, wapentakes (hundreds) like Ainsty, and entire counties organized to raise money and buy rights (or more precisely "liberties") important to its inhabitants.  No doubt it was the leaders of local society who did the organizing and ponied up most of the money, but they didn't buy individual privileges, they bought them in the name of the community as a whole (all free men).  Thus royal power was creating or defining community consciousness and community organizations in some sense opposed or at least counterposed to the power of the crown.

That Magna Carta was written in King John's reign is often taken as a consequence of his personal character. There is some truth to this.  John certainly ran a burdensome government. The expensive of his wars pushed him to make the most of his right to tax his subjects, a right that at this time was almost absolute.

One tax that particularly caused resentment was the scutage. This levied on the king's vassals, and was meant as a substitute for military service in person. In the past it had been levied relatively rarely, though its frequency had been slowly increasing: Henry II and Richard had collected eleven scutages in forty-five years. John collected eleven in sixteen years, at higher rates than usual, and sometimes when no military expedition was launched.

Similarly, John raised reliefs to a much higher level. The maximum relief set in Magna Carta was 100 pounds for a earl's or baron's estate. One hundred pounds is about 150 marks. In John's heyday he was demanding and getting two thousand, five thousand, seven thousand, even ten thousand marks for major baronies. This measure, like the previous one, struck directly at the prosperity and even the existence of family fortune in the military aristocracy.

It did not help that John exploited these unprecedented taxes to keep his barons politically dependent. Those who were submissive could get reasonable terms of payment, or even be excused some of their tax debt. Those who fell out of favor could be destroyed by a simple demand for prompt payment.

The classic example from John's reign is the case of William de Briuoze. He was a marcher baron who was very powerful in South Wales and had long been in John's confidence. He apparently knew what exactly had happened to Arthur. In 1210, William fell out of favor, possibly because his wife had been talking about Arthur's fate. Whatever the reason, John called in all his debts at once. William revolted rather than be ruined, and eventually fled to Ireland, where John pursued him to prevent an alliance between William and the Anglo-Norman aristocracy newly established there.  William's wife Matilda fell into John's hands, as did one of their sons, and the two were thrown into a dungeon to starve to death.

Almost any great baron was vulnerable to such treatment, and John was erratic enough that no one felt entirely safe.

John was not a nice man, and that he was a hard and unpopular master. But even so, one should not overstate the contrast between John and his father and brother. If one eliminates the purely personal element and just looks at the issue of arbitrary government, no distinction is really possible. As J.C. Holt has said, the Angevins stood or fell together; Henry II was as much a target of Magna Carta as John himself. Movements to limit and control the king were an ever present possibility. John just gave them the opportunity to break out.

And opposition did break out in 1213-14, just before Bouvines. The country was just recovering from the interdict and the king's excommunication, when John began actively planning a new campaign. A new scutage was proclaimed.

In the North of England, this was the last straw. A number of important barons declared that they would not pay, because they owed no service south of the Channel. They drew up a list of demands, consisting what they considered royal abuses of feudal custom and forest law, which they wanted the king to correct. John negotiated with them, and made a few concessions, but was unable to defuse the opposition.

With the disaster of Bouvines, the discontented barons gained heart, and began to press for a full-scale grant of liberties. John again negotiated, with the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, acting as chief intermediary. But John also began to arm. He did not think that anything he was willing to grant would satisfy the barons, who now included East Anglians as well as Northerners.

The barons armed too. In fact they had formed a commune, or at least a sworn organization, and, early in 1215, elected a leader, whom they called "the marshal of the the army of the Lord and of Holy Church." The title probably had no precise significance; perhaps they were reaching to find a justification to defy their rightful lord, and found it in religion.  The rebels do seem to have had the sympathy of some church leaders, and especially Stephen Langton.

An important turning point came in May of that year. The barons caught John off guard by entering London on a Sunday, when most people were at church. Some of the citizens actively helped them.

Once John had lost his major city, he decided serious negotiations were in order. The result of these negotiations was the granting of Magna Carta on June 15, 1215.

Magna Carta was, on that date, a general confirmation of liberties that the barons wanted or believed that they had possessed in the past. It included a variety of provisions, including the protection of widow's rights, the end of abuses of relief and forest law, and the setting of limits on the king's ability to levy scutage or feudal taxes without consultation.

Most clauses were directly of benefit to the barons, but there were a number that secured the liberty of all free men. Most important was chapter 39, which forbade the king to condemn any free man except by legal process. And there were others that protected lesser free men from abuses by their own feudal lords.

The document as a whole was to set a new standard for royal behavior, and as such act as part of a peace between the king and his greater subjects.

However, neither John nor his barons trusted one another. John wanted the rebels to disperse and disarm so that his authority would be restored. The rebels wanted John to put the mandated reforms into action. There were clauses in Magna Carta permitting them to police John's behavior through a council of twenty-five barons, but since there was no tradition of constitutional government this was a weak straw. Once the barons disarmed, they well knew, they could have no influence on the actual workings of government. Thus each side waited for the other to move as a sign of good faith, and when nothing happened, took it as a sign of bad faith.

Perhaps there was no good faith to be had -- John at least, immediately applied to the pope for a dispensation from his oath to uphold the charter. The pope being John's overlord, his request was granted as soon as it got to Rome. By the time the pope's condemnation of the Charter reached England in September, both sides were preparing for war again. It soon broke out.

The rebels were in a difficult position. If John was their king, they would eventually have to submit to his authority, and trust to his good grace. By contemporary standards, they had no way to control him unless he consented to that control. Their only alternative was to depose him. The barons, or some of them, took this step. They invited Prince Louis of France to be their new king. Louis jumped at the opportunity -- having been frustrated in a previous attempt in 1213 -- and in May of 1216 he landed in Kent with a French army. Many of those who followed him were Normans who had lost their English lands after the fall of Normandy, and were anxious to regain them.

The French invasion put John in a very bad position, but it also split his opponents. Not everyone was interested in aiding this new Norman invasion. If it succeeded, someone was going to be dispossessed. Some of the more conservative barons went back to John's side. Many others could not forget their hostility to the king, however, and the civil war continued.

The Plantagenet dynasty was saved by the only event that could end division in the country -- the death of John. This took place in October of 1216, as the result, some say, of drinking too much new cider. He left behind a minor heir, his son Henry III, in the care of William Marshal.

The new regency quickly became stronger than John had been. William Marshal was widely respected, and the very vulnerability of the young king caused a reaction in his favor. No one could hold his father's sins against him, and therefore one of the chief motives for the rebellion dissipated.

Another motive disappeared when William Marshal reissued a somewhat shortened Magna Carta as a promise of future good government. With this promise before them and the devil dead and buried, many barons made their peace with young Henry.

In September of 1217, after some military defeats, Louis renounced his claim to England and was allowed to leave. His remaining English supporters were restored to their estates. As a final measure, Magna Carta was reissued one more time, as was a Forest Charter that defined and limited the king's privileges over his game preserve.

This second reissue of  Magna Carta consecrated the document as part of an overall restoration of peace and good government.  As modified there was nothing in it that the king's councilors could not live with, at least for the time being.  A willing partnership between the king and the free men of the realm had advantages for both sides.

Magna Carta was just one of many such charters of privileges. There is one thing that sets the English charter apart from the rest: its survival. The other charters are only known to certain medieval and legal historians. Millions of people know Magna Carta, and some parts of it still have legal validity. Why?

All the other charters of liberties of this period were grants to nobles, high-ranking clergymen, and in some cases, to a few important urban communities. Where effective, these charters increased the privileges of the nobility vis-a-vis the lower orders of society. But important parts of Magna Carta were applicable to all free men. Already in the early 13th century, the barons had found it necessary to unite with knights and burgesses, and to consider their interests, in order to build an effective reform coalition. This was a consequence of Angevin despotism -- royal methods of government had already united the free men as subjects of a strong central authority. Magna Carta thus reflects unique English conditions.

It also helped to create unique English conditions. The Magna Carta struggle itself helped the political classes realize that they had a community of interest, and if they wanted to protect that interest, they must work together. After it was written and accepted the charter made it possible for anyone who was a free man to appeal to it as guaranteeing important liberties. Such appeals, in fact, were not long in coming, in many ordinary court cases before the royal justices.

Not that Magna Carta assured constitutional government, even for the minority of English men to whom it applied. Once Henry III grew up, and acquired a will of his own, government by royal will rather than judgement was revived. Thirteenth century England was fated to go through another great civil war.

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.