The Magna Carta: Origins of Liberty?

Yesterday was, for those of you who managed not to have noticed, the fourth of July, America’s Independence Day. Its a day for grilling hot dogs, slurping watermelon, and setting off fireworks, to be sure, but also a day for reflecting (ostensibly) upon the founding document of the United States–the Declaration of Independence. Born out of the stew of Enlightenment political thought and moral philosophy, the Declaration also claims descent from a mediaeval text–the Magna Carta–which, if you believe the textbooks, just about invented the concepts of liberty and limitations to executive power.

John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence–a document whose logical implications extended far beyond the social realities of its time. (Wikimedia Commons)

But just what is the Magna Carta, why was it written, and does it deserve its grandiose reputation in the American myth of origins?

At its most basic, the Magna Carta (or Great Charter) is a statement of rights and privileges. The rights and privileges of the king, his officers, his barons, even of the Church in England, the country’s towns and cities, and its ordinary subjects. Made up of 63 clauses, the document is an interesting combination of the very specific and the universal.

An example of the former is clause number 58–‘We will at once return the son of Llywelyn, all Welsh hostages, and the charters delivered to us as security for the peace…’ which refers to the ongoing tensions between the Kings of England and the princes of Wales, but also to King John’s general reputation of nastiness towards hostages.

The original parchment copy of the Magna Carta, written in 1215 at Runnymede, outside London. (Wikimedia Commons)

It is the tone of the latter type of passages, however, which have earned the document its enduring fame, as when it opens by declaring:

‘To all free men of our kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs…”

This universal character is upheld by clauses such as number 40, ‘To no one will we sell, to no one deny or dely right of justice.’ 

The bulk of the Magna Carta, however, is not concerned with every, or even with most of England’s subjects. Instead, it devotes itself to the earls and barons, the landholders and knights who made up the feudal elite, whose legal rights it delineates in some detail. To understand why it does so, and which clauses would have been most important to contemporary observers, it is first necessary to take a step back, and to consider how the Magna Carta came to be written at all.

The effigy of John in Worcester Cathedral, (Wikimedia Commons)

Penned in 1215, the Magna Carta was born during the reign of King John–the man immortalised as a villain in the Robin Hood legends. He came to the throne in 1199 after the death of his crusading brother King Richard the Lionheart, and his reputation for tyrannical rulership followed soon afterwards.

Embroiled in conflict over royal lands on the continent, and particularly in the ancestral duchy of Normandy, John zealously collected as much money as he was entitled to (and often more) from his English subjects. This could be had through fees pertaining to the royal justice, from his rights as a feudal lord in marrying off widows or wards, or through scutage, the practice of taking cash, instead of man-hours, from someone who owed military service.

It seems, in hindsight, that King John was too good at squeezing money out of England (one of the most prosperous and well-governed countries of Europe) for his own good. Over time, his abuse of privilege, his loss of Normandy, his alleged murder of cousin Arthur of Brittany, and his excommunication over the appointment of Stephen Langdon as Archbishop of Canterbury proved to be too much.

Many of his barons, powerful landholders with their own dependents, formed factions around the Archbishop Langdon and demanded that John confine himself to the privileges of his ancestors. Such was their advantage at this time that they also pressed for the creation of a body of nobles–a parliament–not only able, but duty bound to restrain the King if he transgressed the Magna Carta’s provisions.

Against the backdrop of these events, certain of the Magna Carta’s clauses grow in significance, like number 12: ‘No ‘scutage’ or ‘aid’ may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our [the King’s] person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter…’ which sought to curtail John’s financial exploitation. Other ‘evil customs’ like the exploitation of King’s Forests (think Robin Hood again) were also disavowed.

In sum, then, how should we view the Magna Carta’s reputation as a cornerstone of modern civil liberties?

Memorial at Runnymede, erected by the American Bar Association “To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law”, according to the inscription, in 1957. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the one hand, it lends royal authority to a system of executive checks and balances through parliament, which ‘may distrain upon and assail us [the Crown] in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else….until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon…’ for the King’s wrongs.

On the other hand, however, even the most grand of the Magna Carta’s clauses, addressing themselves to ‘all free men’ , were limited in nature, since many in England were unfree–the tenants of noble landlords. This class of people, with no political agency, suffered as often from the acts of parliament as from those of the monarchy in the following century (see my post on Europe after the Plague for more…), and for them, the Magna Carta meant very little.

Like the American Declaration of Independence itself, then, the Magna Carta was a document whose universalist tone was incompatible with the social realities of its day and the intentions of its authors. Its looming precedent, however, aided the process of transforming the individual rights and privileges of political life into the more systematic conception of the rule of law that many countries aim to uphold today.

Learn More:

The quotes above are drawn from a classroom edition of the text, but the full translation can be found online here, with a very useful introduction.


3 thoughts on “The Magna Carta: Origins of Liberty?

  1. Pingback: Rediscovered Libraries, Part Three: The Cotton Collection | mediaevalmusings

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