Magna Carta: A turning point in English history

When England's barons clipped the wings of a tyrannical king, they established principles that still influence British justice 800 years on, says David Carpenter

Illustration: Jonty Clark

The year of Magna Carta, 1215, when an English ruler was first subjected to the law, has resonated down the ages as a landmark in Britain’s constitutional history. Indeed, in a BBC History Magazine poll, its anniversary was voted the most suitable date on which the nation should celebrate Britishness.

The Charter itself still lives. Its most fundamental chapters remain on the Statute Book of the UK as barriers to arbitrary rule. They condemn the denial, sale and delay of justice, and forbid imprisonment and dispossession save by lawful judgement of one’s peers (social equals), or the law of the land.

The Charter was negotiated at Runnymede between 10 and 15 June 1215, with King John riding down each day from Windsor, and the barons encamped in their tents across the meadows beside the Thames.

On 15 June, John, tricky to the end, refused more concessions and simply sealed the Charter – “take it or leave it” – thereby cleverly keeping the names of the 25 barons who were to enforce its terms out of the document, this because they had still to be chosen.

John hoped the Charter would become no more than a toothless symbol of his generosity to the kingdom; the barons hoped that its terms would be rigorously enforced and indeed extended. The result was civil war.

By September, John had got the pope to quash the Charter. That month, the opposition barons deposed John and offered the throne to Louis, eldest son of King Philip II of France. He came to England in May 1216 and by the time of John’s death in October controlled more than half the kingdom.

In the north Alexander II of Scotland had gained Carlisle, and was making good his claims to Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumberland. In Wales, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, ruler of Gwynedd, had swept through the south and taken the royal bases of Cardigan and Carmarthen.

Yet John’s dynasty survived, and with it, paradoxically, the Charter. Its implantation into English political life was the work of the minority government of John’s son, Henry III, who was only nine on his accession. Magna Carta was also a British document. Both Alexander and Llywelyn had been with the rebels from the start, and both benefited from the Charter’s terms, terms which acknowledged “the law of Wales” and invoked for the Welsh, as for Alexander, the principle of judgement by peers.

Ultimately, as Wales and Scotland became part of a United Kingdom, their peoples too were embraced by the Charter’s protections. The Charter, however, was no panacea. Since the clause setting up the 25 barons was left out from post-1215 versions of the document, it had no constitutional means of enforcement.

It said nothing about how the king’s ministers were to be chosen, patronage distributed and policy decided, major holes which defined the political battleground of the later middle ages.

Yet the Charter made a profound difference. It clamped down on various sources of revenue. Henceforth the “relief” or inheritance tax paid by an earl or baron was to be £100, not the thousands of pounds sometimes demanded by John.

It facilitated the spread of the common law and made justice less open to bargaining or bribery. It gave the gentry concessions they could exploit to make the running of local government more acceptable.

Above all it asserted a fundamental principle: the king was subject to the law, the law Magna Carta had made. As a result arbitrary rule became more difficult and resistance to it more legitimate.

When the king became a sitting duck

In 1214 John’s long planned campaign to recover his continental empire had ended in disaster with his allies decisively defeated at Bouvines. John returned to England a sitting duck, his treasure spent.

Suspicious and untrustworthy, a womaniser and a murderer, he was loathed by many of his barons. His huge financial exactions over several years had antagonised the wider political community. By early 1215 a large group of barons, many from the North, where his rule had seemed particularly severe, were in league, and were demanding reform. They were abetted by Scotland’s King Alexander and Llywelyn of Wales.

John played for time and summoned a council to meet at Oxford towards the end of April. Instead the barons met in arms at Stamford in Lincolnshire, from where on 5 May they renounced their allegiance to the king, the beginning of civil war.

The war was transformed within a fortnight by the Londoners letting the baronial rebels into the city – its walls and wealth protected the baronial cause, and made any quick royalist victory impossible. Yet baronial victory too could not be quick. John retained his castles, many commanded by ruthless military experts.

Shrewd use of patronage meant he also retained the loyalty of some of the greatest barons. So the result towards the end of May was a truce and the start of the negotiations which ended with the Charter at Runnymede.

The Charter was the product of the way John and his predecessors has ruled since the Norman Conquest. It also reflected the nature of early 13th-century English society, in part through its omissions.

Take the place of women in the Charter. They certainly appeared, for important clauses secured for baronial widows their dowers and inheritances and protected them from forced re-marriage by the king.

The clause reflected that baronial women did have property rights: they could inherit land; they received as dower a portion (usually a third) of their husbands’ lands on his death. The clause had a real effect and the 13th century was graced by large numbers of baronesses who spent years as widows controlling extensive lands.

Yet the Charter did nothing to alter the inequalities between men and women. Women only inherited in default of brothers. They virtually never held office, and, for all their influence behind the scenes, played virtually no public part in politics.

No women featured in the list of those who had counselled John to concede the Charter. The clauses in the Charter itself were designed not to liberate women, but to protect their male children from having their mothers’ property carried off by second husbands.

Peasants oppressed – no change there then

Even less privileged were the peasants. They made up perhaps 75 per cent of the population, half of them “villeins” which meant they were legally unfree.

Peasants featured in the Charter – the stipulation that sheriffs should not force men and villages to work on bridges dealt specifically with their predicament. So did the clause which laid down that fines imposed on villeins were to be reasonable and assessed by men of their neighbourhood.

To no one, John promised in one of the most famous clauses, would he sell, deny or delay justice. But there lay the rub, for it was the law itself which made half of the peasantry unfree, leaving them excluded from the king’s courts and at their lords’ mercy in anything concerning the terms on which they held their lands.

The Charter did nothing to alter this. Indeed, the protection it did afford peasants was exclusively against the oppressions of royal agents. They were protected from the king so that they could be exploited all the better by their lords.

Against its meagre concern for women and peasants, the Charter catered abundantly for the great players. It gave freedom to the Church (holding over a quarter of England’s land), and re-iterated John’s promise that bishops and abbots could be elected free from royal interference, thus dealing with a major grievance.

The church was to play a key part in publicising John’s charter and in supporting the later versions of Henry III. London as we have seen, was the great baronial base. Its population early in the 13th century was perhaps as high as 40,000, making it Britain’s largest city.

The Charter protected the privileges of all the kingdom’s cities and boroughs but London’s alone were mentioned by name, and it received an additional promise that it should be free from arbitrary taxation.

Most striking of all was the Charter’s treatment of the knights. In the 1200s there were about 5,000 of them in England’s counties, the backbone of local government.

One contemporary chronicler, Ralph of Coggeshall, averred that all the barons who remained loyal to John were deserted by their knights, an exaggeration but it shows the flow of the tide.

The charter laid down that the king’s judges hearing assizes in the counties were to sit with four knights of each county, elected in the county court, a testimony both to the self-confidence of the knights and their determination to control the workings of justice in the localities.

Another clause empowered 12 knights in each county, again elected in the county court, to investigate and abolish the evil practices of the king’s local officials. The zeal with which the knights went about their work was a major factor in John’s decision to abandon the Charter.

Above all, the Charter met the grievances of the earls and barons. There were around a dozen earls in the early 13th century, and 100 to 200 barons. Tiny numbers, but they controlled a large part of the country’s wealth, and had mostly been in rebellion.

Not surprisingly, they stamped their mark on the Charter’s early clauses, making it very much a baronial document. Thus chapter two, as we have seen, fixed the relief of earls and barons at £100.

Chapter four protected baronial lands from exploitation by the king when they were in his hands during the minority of an heir. Chapter 14 vested the power to consent to taxation in the hands of a largely baronial assembly.

Indeed, only the greater barons, lay and ecclesiastical, were to receive individual letters of summons to it. The implication was that the earls and barons, commanding the allegiances of their tenants, could answer for the realm.

The Charter thus reflected the structures of power in English society. It was also the product of ideas. The king should govern lawfully for the good of his people.

He should only punish individuals having obtained a judgement of their peers. A king who defied these principles could be regarded as a tyrant, and might be restrained or even deposed.

By 1215 such concepts had a long pedigree and were commonplace amongst John’s opponents. They were sharpened and refined by the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, an internationally famous academic, who played a key role in brokering the 1215 settlement, and in supporting the Charter thereafter.

It was these ideas, enshrined in the Charter, which formed its essential legacy, a legacy first for England, and ultimately for the United Kingdom as a whole.

David Carpenter is chair in medieval history at King's College London and author of The Penguin History of Britain: The Struggle for Mastery – Britain 1066–1284

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