Magna Carta, the Charter of Liberties sealed by King John of England in 1215 AD, is routinely cited as one of the most important documents of our constitutional tradition. It ranks with the English Bill of Rights (1689), The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution in symbolic power. And while the details of what it says are not as familiar to most people as, say, the details of the United States Bill of Rights, many people do nevertheless remember some important points about it. Everyone knows, for example, that Magna Carta had something to do with the advancement of the rule of law. People also tend to know that Magna Carta became (over its long history) the foundation of some of the most basic legal rights and protections that we enjoy today. Since I’ve been writing occasional blog posts on how Magna Carta has been understood by people throughout history, I thought it might be interesting to stop and write a post that notes some of the specific points that make the Great Charter one of the most enduring documents of all ages.
Did you know, for instance, that Magna Carta helped to give birth to representative government? Chapter 14 provides instructions for obtaining the common counsel of the kingdom, which the barons who revolted against King John insisted John take into consideration before demanding certain kinds of taxation.
Speaking of taxation, did you know that the phrase “No Taxation without Representation,” which became so important for the cause of American independence in the 1760s, had its roots in a principle that was expressed both in the Articles of the Barons presented to King John at Runnymede and in chapter 12 of King John’s charter?
Runaway taxation, argued many American colonists, was the signature of tyrannical government. The Barons who revolted against King John couldn’t have agreed more. And where there is a danger of a king turning tyrant, the Barons proposed that there is a need for a strong system of checks and balances. Chapter 61 of Magna Carta created a council of review that was empowered to monitor the King’s government and to take (legal!) military action against the king when his actions defied the limits imposed by the charter. The king is not above the law.
Most people know that the foundations of the right to a trial by jury can be found in Magna Carta, along with basic protections from unlawful imprisonment and a guarantee of due process of law (“per legem terrae” in King John’s Magna Carta). All of these provisions can be found in the legendary chapter 39 which has become virtual scripture for the civil libertarian tradition.
Chapter 40 articulates a guarantee in language better than I can paraphrase: “Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus aut differemus, rectum aut justiciam.” To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.
Many of Magna Carta’s provisions express in terms of concrete relationships ideas that can otherwise be stated as abstract guarantees of rights. For example, chapter 17 expresses a guarantee of access to law in the following form: “Common pleas shall not follow our court, but shall be held in some fixed place.” In other words, if you need to sue someone, you should not be obliged to invest in the travel expenses that might be required to follow the king as he circulates throughout his kingdom, governing and fighting wars.
Magna Carta is a medieval document, and therefore some care is required to get through the difficult language it contains. Even when it is translated from the original Latin, Magna Carta takes for granted the reader’s knowledge of medieval English social ties and feudal property rights. And then there is the barrage of exotic legal terms; its provisions relate to kydells, wainage, socage, scutage, burgage, novel disseisin, mortmain, mortdancestor, amercements and darrein presentment among other archaic expressions.
The fact that there are eight centuries of historical distance between that day in June of 1215 and Magna Carta’s modern readers leads many historians to object to drawing direct lines of influence between the Great Charter and contemporary political rights. Nevertheless, some of the most important figures in our constitutional history have, at pivotal moments of political change, seen in Magna Carta an ancient precedent for the marriage of individual rights and constitutional government that characterized the rise of the modern world, a line of interpretation that has had incalculable impact on the world we live in.
Anyone interested in a glimpse of the full text of King John’s 1215 Magna Carta can find it here. For people who read Latin, look here. For those intrepid readers who would like to see a medieval translation of Magna Carta into Anglo-Norman, look here. Magna Carta was reissued in an abbreviated form by John’s successor, Henry III in 1216, in 1217 and in 1225 and again in 1297 by Edward I. A manuscript of Magna Carta from 1297 is on display at the United States National Archives.
The classic commentary, by William Sharp Mckechnie on Magna Carta in all its versions and the documents surrounding its creation can be found here.
Magna Carta will celebrate its 800th birthday in 2015. Look for more news and blog posts on the heritage of English Liberties and Anglo-American Constitutionalism here on In Custodia Legis in the coming months.
Awesome piece! Love the stories about King John and the barons!