Magna Carta

Referenced in HIS 111 this week: Magna Carta, the “Great Charter” that the barons of England forced on King John in 1215. Here is a depiction of the event (done in a rather anachronistic style – John ratified the document with his seal, not his signature):

Engraving by James William Edmund Doyle (1864). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Magna Carta is judged to be the wellspring of our Anglo-Saxon liberties. It does not contain ringing prose-for-the-ages like “When in the course of human events” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident” or “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union.” Instead, it has clauses like:

If any earl, baron, or other person that holds lands directly of the Crown, for military service, shall die, and at his death his heir shall be of full age and owe a ‘relief’, the heir shall have his inheritance on payment of the ancient scale of ‘relief’.

At her husband’s death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband’s house for forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned to her.

If any assizes cannot be taken on the day of the county court, as many knights and freeholders shall afterwards remain behind, of those who have attended the court, as will suffice for the administration of justice, having regard to the volume of business to be done.

In other words, it was largely an ad hoc product of its time. And yet, it established the important principle that the king is beneath the law, that law could only be enacted with the permission of the community of the realm. This concept was eventually realized in Parliament, which emerged in the late thirteenth century, and which wise kings realized they needed to work with. Let us not be Whiggish, though! Magna Carta could have withered away as a clever king turned England into an absolutist state. Nonetheless, as it happens, England did not become an absolutist state. The example of Magna Carta was so strong, and luck so frequently on the side of those who supported it, that would-be absolutists (e.g., Richard II, Charles I, or James II) usually ended up deposed.

I was pleased to see, when I last visited the National Archives in 2005, a copy of Edward I’s reissue of Magna Carta (1297), on the way into an inner sanctum that displayed, under low light and constant guard, original manuscript versions of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. It was as though to say, Magna Carta gave us these things! (It would be great if we could acquire an original copy of the Bill of Rights of 1689, too.) At the time it was owned by Ross Perot; it has since been purchased by David Rubenstein, who kindly kept it on loan to the Archives. I was gladdened to note that of the documents on display, MC was in the best condition. Say what you will about the Middle Ages, they did know how to use ink and parchment!