The 15th of June marks eight hundred and two years since the Magna Carta was written into English history. This ‘Great Charter’ was a sign of changing attitudes in England at the time and laid the foundations for our modern democracy.
The Magna Carta also known as Magna Carta Libertatum meaning “the Great Charter of the Liberties”, originated as an unsuccessful attempt to achieve peace between royalist and rebel factions and acted as a major factor in the build up to the outbreak of the First Barons’ War. The charter was a necessary attempt to quell the anger of the nobility caused by the failures of the third of the Angevin kings, King John who was the son of Henry II and brother to Richard the Lionheart. These failures included the loss of vast amounts of wealth and lands in France, to which his father had been the steadfast overlord. Moreover, his oppression of the church and nobles via the principle of vis et voluntas, or “force and will” which included taking executive and sometimes arbitrary decisions, often justified on the basis that a king was above the law. Furthermore, the Barons of England disliked the king as he borrowed their money and didn’t repay them. These factors coupled with the defeat at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 lead to the many of the Barons rising up in northern and eastern England in order to resist his rule.
John met the rebel leaders at Runnymede, a water-meadow on the south bank of the River Thames, on 10 June 1215. Though Runnymede was a traditional meeting point for assemblies, it provided a half way mark between the King’s castle at Windsor and the rebel camp in Staines. It was at Runnymede where the rebels presented John with their draft demands for reform, the ‘Articles of the Barons’. A few years later this was renamed to the Magna Carta. The charter wasted no time on political theory, it went beyond simply addressing individual complaints of the barons, and formed a wider proposal for political reform. It promised the protection of the rights of the church, protection from illegal imprisonment, and access to swift justice. Most importantly it placed limitations on taxation and other feudal payments to the Crown, with certain forms of feudal taxation requiring the consent of the barons.
Though the Charter mainly focused on the rights of the Barons and other free men the rights of serfs were included in articles 16, 20, and 28. Under what historians later labelled “clause 61”, or the “security clause”, a council of 25 barons would be created to monitor and ensure John’s future adherence to the charter. If John did not conform to the charter within 40 days of being notified, the 25 barons were empowered by clause 61 to seize John’s castles and lands until, in their judgement, amends had been made.
John and the rebel barons did not trust each other, and neither side seriously attempted to implement the Charter. The 25 barons selected for the new council were all rebels, chosen by the more extremist barons, and many among the rebels found excuses to keep their forces mobilised. This led to a build-up of tension between the crown and his nobles which meant that a civil war was inevitable.
The Magna Carta has failed to secure peace between the nobility and John but it laid the foundation for something much bigger. On the Charter, the nobility built the beginnings of a democracy which was a huge step forward at the time in reducing the power of the crown and securing rights for the people. Article 20, ‘A freeman shall not be amerced for a small offence, except in accordance with the degree of the offence and for a grave offence he shall be amerced according to its gravity’ makes up the bedrock of which the UK’s unwritten constitution is based on. This emphasises how the events of the past impact the present and can influence how we live our lives even today.
By Sam Penny