What did Magna Carta mean to the English in 1215?

It famously went on to inspire everyone from Cromwell to Gandhi, but what impact did King John's Great Charter have on his subjects in the year that it was sealed? David Carpenter investigates...

A scene from the Queen Mary Psalter (c1310-20)

This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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1215 will surely always be defined by Magna Carta. When, on 15 June of that fateful year, King John reluctantly agreed to seal a great charter in the meadow of Runnymede beside the river Thames, he put his name to a document that has perhaps done more than any other to champion the cause of the rule of law over absolute power. That fact alone makes 1215 a hugely significant year in English history.

That the events of 1215 have resonated down the centuries is beyond doubt. As countless history books have proclaimed, the charter inspired everyone from the opponents of Charles I, through the founding fathers of America, to those struggling for freedom in the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela among them (for more on this, see our feature later in this issue).

But what those history books, for the most part, have not revealed is what this famous document meant to the people of England in 1215. What was its impact on those who worked the land, went to church, administered justice and ran local government as the country emerged into the 13th century? Who did Magna Carta benefit – and short-change – the most?

Barons call the shots

It’s often assumed that the summer of 1215 found the people of England more or less united behind the barons in their opposition to the king. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, yet the England of 1215 was still a very divided, unequal society – one dominated by 100 or so earls and barons. And there’s no getting away from this fact when you read Magna Carta. This was an aggressive document that did not merely reflect social divisions but actively sought to re-enforce them. It thus discriminated against unfree peasants and women, and gave less to towns and knights than they might have hoped.

The chief beneficiaries of many chapters of the charter were those who held their land directly from the king, his so-called ‘tenants-in-chief’, a body several hundred-strong dominated by the earls and greater barons. The national assembly set up by the charter to give the kingdom’s consent to taxation was thus made up exclusively of tenants-in-chief, with the earls, greater barons (and bishops and abbots) receiving a personal summons to attend and the rest of the tenants-in-chief being summoned generally through the sheriffs.

That meant that there was no place in the assembly for representatives of London and other towns, although there is evidence that Londoners thought there should have been. This was not the only way in which Magna Carta discriminated against the capital: when the city joined the barons’ revolt against John, it was promised that tallage – an arbitrary tax levied by the king on towns – would only be raised with the kingdom’s consent. During the negotiations at Runnymede, this demand was dropped.

In overlooking London, the barons were acting in their own interests – for if the king lost the right to tallage his towns as he pleased, the barons might find their ability to tallage their towns compromised too.

While England’s leading earls and barons were undoubtedly the chief beneficiaries of Magna Carta, the implications for the country’s 4,500 knights were far more mixed.

The knights were an influential constituency in early 13th-century England. Most held their land from earls, barons, bishops and abbots – though a few hundred were tenants-in-chief.

For all their powers, the knights would have found some of the early baronial demands in 1215 disappointing. In the one known as the ‘Unknown Charter’, the king’s concessions were made largely to his tenants-in-chief (so excluding the majority of knights). There was nothing at all about the running of local government, a major knightly concern.

Knights fight for their rights

Yet, as knights joined the rebellion, they were able to transform the baronial programme. Magna Carta was to stipulate that four knights, elected in the county court, were to sit with the king’s judges when the latter visited the counties to hear the common law legal actions. That charter also stated that 12 knights, elected in each county (so not chosen by the barons), would investigate the abuses of the king’s local officials. This chapter in the charter, greatly strengthened during the negotiations at Runnymede, placed tremendous power in the knights’ hands.

The knights were able to draw another significant concession from the barons. Under the terms of Magna Carta, the king could no longer allow a baron to levy a tax on his men, save on three occasions: to knight his eldest son, ransom his body or marry his eldest daughter. This met a major knightly grievance, because John had often allowed taxes to be levied for other purposes, notably to help a baron pay his debts to the crown.

Yet this victory was short lived. The chapter preventing barons levying taxes on their free men was left out of all the versions of Magna Carta after 1215 and so never appeared in the definitive charter of 1225. What’s more, the  body of knights and freemen in the counties was unrepresented in the national assembly that the 1215 Magna Carta said should be summoned to agree to taxation, since, as we have seen, this was to be composed simply of bishops, abbots, earls, barons and other tenants-in-chief.

There was no suggestion that knights elected by their counties should attend, despite the fact that the charter had locally elected knights sitting with the king’s judges and investigating local abuses. In this respect, King John was actually more progressive than the barons. In 1213, he summoned to a meeting four knights from each county to discuss the kingdoms’ affairs – an example not followed by the barons in the national assembly they envisaged in Magna Carta.

In the event, knights representing the counties weren’t summoned to a parliament (as national assemblies were increasingly called) until 1254. And it was only in 1265 – in the great parliament convoked by Simon de Montfort – that knights from the counties and burgesses from the towns were summoned together: the beginnings of the House of Commons.

Dividing the spoils

If the barons and knights were divided over the question of who should enjoy the spoils of Magna Carta, when it came to discriminating against the unfree peasants on whose labours their wealth depended, they were ruthlessly united.

Perhaps half of England’s population of around 3 million in 1215 were unfree. These villeins or serfs had very little share in John’s concessions in Magna Carta. The most famous chapter in the charter – 39 – laid down that “no free man” was to be deprived of property save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. In other words,  lords could dispossess their unfree peasants as they wished.

Chapter 40 appeared more promising. “To no one will we deny, delay or sell right or justice,” John proclaimed. The trouble is, it was the law itself that denied villeins access to the king’s courts in any matter concerning their lands and services. As Bracton, the 13th-century book on English law, put it, when a villein woke up in the morning, he did not know what he would have to do by nightfall. He must do as he was bid by his lord. The solitary chapter in Magna Carta that apparently safeguarded villeins was less effective than it, on first reading, seems. It was carefully drafted to protect villeins from fines imposed by the king, but not from fines imposed by their lords!

The situation for free women was slightly less bleak. Magna Carta stipulated that widows were to enter their dowers and inheritances without charge and difficulty, and also protected widows from compulsory re-marriage.

And though chapter 39 of the charter safeguarded the “free man” from arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, dispossession and “destruction”, “man” in 1215 would have been widely understood as meaning human being, and so embraced women as well as men. Coming so soon after John’s ‘destruction’ of Matilda de Briouze and her eldest son (they were starved to death in Corfe Castle after their family fell out with the king), these words’ significance would not have been lost on many people.

Second-class women

Magna Carta, however, also reflected the inequalities between the sexes. A woman enjoyed far fewer property rights than her male counterparts: she only inherited in default of a brother, and, in marriage, her property was controlled by her husband.

The charter also highlighted the way in which women were sidelined in public life. It gave the names of 39 men: John himself, his lay and ecclesiastical counsellors, and the foreign sheriffs and castellans who were to be dismissed from office. And how many women were named in the document? Not one.

Although women were entitled to the judgment of their peers, those peers would have been entirely male – for women did not sit on juries, and they did not (save for on very rare occasions) hold public office.

Worse still, the only chapter in Magna Carta where the word ‘femina’ did appear put women on a lower level than men. This stated that no one was to be arrested for murder on a woman’s accusation, unless the deceased happened to be her husband.

Legal records suggest that women were lodging a high number of appeals at the time of Magna Carta. As they could not be made to backup their accusation in a trial by battle, the suspicion was that women were making accusations irresponsibly – either on their own account or because they were being manipulated by men. Whatever the truth of that view, the chapter does not suggest that the men behind Magna Carta had a particularly high opinion of the opposite sex.

For the people of England in 1215, therefore, Magna Carta proved a socially divided and divisive document. It buttressed, rather than challenged inequalities, ensuring that power remained very much in the hands of a tiny clique at the top. Yet, for all that, Magna Cart met real grievances and asserted one fundamental principle: that of the rule of law. It was a tenet from which everyone could potentially benefit. And that was crucial.


Magna Carta: A story of survival

When, on 15 June 1215, King John sealed Magna Carta, he did so because he found himself on the wrong end of a massive rebellion against his rule – sparked by his harsh treatment of his subjects and military defeat in Normandy – led by some of England’s most powerful barons.

Magna Carta’s 63 chapters and 3,550 words (all written in Latin) placed a series of restrictions upon the king, limiting his ability to take money in arbitrary fashion, and insisting he no longer sell, deny and delay justice.

Yet the charter was also designed as a peace treaty between John and his opponents. In that it was a failure. Within little more than a month of Runnymede, John was asking the pope to quash it. The result was civil war.

Magna Carta may have been lost to history then. It survived because, after John’s death in October 1216, the minority government of his son, the nine-year-old Henry III, accepted what John had rejected and issued a new version of the charter in the hope of tempting rebels back into the king’s camp. Having won the war, and in order to consolidate the peace, Henry issued a second version in 1217. And, then in 1225, in return for a great tax, he issued what became the final and definitive version.

It was this, the 1225 charter of Henry III (in its essentials, the same as the charter of 1215), that was to be confirmed by later kings. And it is chapters of the 1225 charter that remain on the Statute Book of the United Kingdom today.

Over time many of the charter’s details became outmoded, but Magna Carta survived because it asserted a fundamental principle, that of the rule of law. The king could no longer seize property and arrest individuals as he pleased. He could only do so by lawful process.


“I hope that 100 years from now Magna Carta will still be at the forefront of popular acclaim”

David Carpenter tells Rob Attar why Magna Carta retains its relevance in 2015

Why is Magna Carta still so important after 800 years?

My answer here is totally unoriginal! It is because it asserts a fundamental principle that the ruler is subject to the law and can’t treat his subjects in an arbitrary fashion. That’s summed up in the most famous chapter: no 39, which is still on the statute book of the United Kingdom today. There’s also chapter 40, which says that nobody will be denied their rights or justice. That too is still part of the laws of this country.

Magna Carta is also important because of its history. It has become an iconic document, used by the opponents of Charles I and then the founding fathers of the United States, among others, as a general principle of lawful rule. And it is still part of the political debate in Britain today.

Did the authors of the charter have any idea of how iconic a document it would become?

At the time they certainly hoped it would have a very long-term future. After all, it was granted by King John in perpetuity for himself and his heirs and the aspiration was that it would become a fundamental document governing the constitution of England. However, within a few months of Magna Carta being issued, both sides had abandoned it, to the extent that it looked like a dead letter by the autumn of 1215.

You’ve just written a new book on Magna Carta. What have been the main findings of your research for that project?

There were three discoveries that excited me the most. The first was a letter written by King John in 1209 that showed that he was trying to reassert overlordship over Scotland at this time. It means that the Magna Carta revolt saved Scotland from English domination and so the whole history of Anglo-Scottish relations may now need to be rethought.

The second discovery was that one of the four copies of Magna Carta went to Canterbury Cathedral, which we never knew before. Then my third most exciting finding was the sheer number of copies of the charter that were produced, many of which are variant texts. These throw new light on the negotiations at Runnymede and were themselves very important in spreading news of Magna Carta.

Just as importantly, my research has enabled me to open a window onto English society in 1215, focusing on women and peasants, as well as earls, barons and knights.

What are the main popular misconceptions about Magna Carta nowadays?

The thing people often get wrong is thinking it was signed, rather than sealed. It is amazing how common that mistake is. Actually, though, it’s salutary to realise how many people know nothing about the charter at all. I remember last year giving a talk about new Magna Carta discoveries to a group of prospective history undergraduates. I began by saying how there had been many exciting new discoveries in the run-up to the 800th anniversary and someone in the front row held up her hand and said: “Yes, but please could you tell me: what is Magna Carta?” So you can’t take anything for granted. You have to remember how few people study medieval history, and I wonder how many people would even know the date of Magna Carta.

What do you think the 800th anniversary will mean for Magna Carta?

In the short term, I suppose that everyone hopes that the anniversary will boost interest in the charter – both the historic document and the themes and principles that it embodies. We hope that it will come to the forefront of public awareness.

One thing I do think about is that we are (in 2015) between the past and the future in a way. It’s not so difficult for people like me to reach back to the 700th anniversary during the First World War. I knew people who fought in that war and I also feel in touch with some of the historians who wrote in the Magna Carta Commemoration Essays (published during the Great War), particularly Maurice Powicke. There are people still alive today who knew Powicke well.

As well as reaching back, I often think about the 2115 anniversary when none of us will be alive. We don’t know whether the charter will still be celebrated then or what kind of academic work will be going on, but it’s fascinating to speculate about it. Of course, I hope that 100 years from now Magna Carta will still be at the forefront of both academic and popular interest and acclaim.

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David Carpenter is professor of medieval history at King’s College London. He is a co-investigator on the Magna Carta Project, which provides text, translations and expert commentaries: magnacartaresearch.org