June 15, 2005


Magna Carta and Its American Legacy (National Archives)

Before penning the Declaration of Independence--the first of the American Charters of Freedom--in 1776, the Founding Fathers searched for a historical precedent for asserting their rightful liberties from King George III and the English Parliament. They found it in a gathering that took place 561 years earlier on the plains of Runnymede, not far from where Windsor Castle stands today. There, on June 15, 1215, an assembly of barons confronted a despotic and cash-strapped King John and demanded that traditional rights be recognized, written down, confirmed with the royal seal, and sent to each of the counties to be read to all freemen. The result was Magna Carta--a momentous achievement for the English barons and, nearly six centuries later, an inspiration for angry American colonists.

Magna Carta was the result of the Angevin king's disastrous foreign policy and overzealous financial administration. John had suffered a staggering blow the previous year, having lost an important battle to King Philip II at Bouvines and with it all hope of regaining the French lands he had inherited. When the defeated John returned from the Continent, he attempted to rebuild his coffers by demanding scutage (a fee paid in lieu of military service) from the barons who had not joined his war with Philip. The barons in question, predominantly lords of northern estates, protested, condemning John's policies and insisting on a reconfirmation of Henry I's Coronation Oath (1100), which would, in theory, limit the king's ability to obtain funds. (As even Henry ignored the provisions of this charter, however, a reconfirmation would not necessarily guarantee fewer taxes.) But John refused to withdraw his demands, and by spring most baronial families began to take sides. The rebelling barons soon faltered before John's superior resources, but with the unexpected capture of London, they earned a substantial bargaining chip. John agreed to grant a charter.

The document conceded by John and set with his seal in 1215, however, was not what we know today as Magna Carta but rather a set of baronial stipulations, now lost, known as the "Articles of the barons." After John and his barons agreed on the final provisions and additional wording changes, they issued a formal version on June 19, and it is this document that came to be known as Magna Carta. Of great significance to future generations was a minor wording change, the replacement of the term "any baron" with "any freeman" in stipulating to whom the provisions applied. Over time, it would help justify the application of the Charter's provisions to a greater part of the population. While freemen were a minority in 13th-century England, the term would eventually include all English, just as "We the People" would come to apply to all Americans in this century.

While Magna Carta would one day become a basic document of the British Constitution, democracy and universal protection of ancient liberties were not among the barons' goals. The Charter was a feudal document and meant to protect the rights and property of the few powerful families that topped the rigidly structured feudal system. In fact, the majority of the population, the thousands of unfree laborers, are only mentioned once, in a clause concerning the use of court-set fines to punish minor offenses. Magna Carta's primary purpose was restorative: to force King John to recognize the supremacy of ancient liberties, to limit his ability to raise funds, and to reassert the principle of "due process." Only a final clause, which created an enforcement council of tenants-in-chief and clergymen, would have severely limited the king's power and introduced something new to English law: the principle of "majority rule." But majority rule was an idea whose time had not yet come; in September, at John's urging, Pope Innocent II annulled the "shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the king by violence and fear." The civil war that followed ended only with John's death in October 1216.

To gain support for the new monarch--John's 9-year-old son, Henry III--the young king's regents reissued the charter in 1217. Neither this version nor that issued by Henry when he assumed personal control of the throne in 1225 were exact duplicates of John's charter; both lacked some provisions, including that providing for the enforcement council, found in the original. With the 1225 issuance, however, the evolution of the document ended. While English monarchs, including Henry, confirmed Magna Carta several times after this, each subsequent issue followed the form of this "final" version. With each confirmation, copies of the document were made and sent to the counties so that everyone would know their rights and obligations.

Once the principle was established that even the King was bound by the law, and that people had certain rights that he could not violate, the rest was easy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 15, 2005 4:46 PM

It did take two British civil wars to reinforce the point.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 15, 2005 6:32 PM

So are our rights a gift from our Creator, or from one band of cutthroats that managed to get their boots on the neck of an even bigger one?

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 15, 2005 7:07 PM

Even the biggest cutthroat--the State--is forced to concede that the rights have precedent. That's the whole enchilada.

Posted by: oj at June 15, 2005 7:12 PM

It was also critical that the King became dependent on the nobles for revenue, and over the centuries the need to raise money for wars forced kings to sell their lands, greatly broadening the land-owning class and strengthening civil society. Parliament routinely demanded increases in its powers in exchange for granting the king taxes to fund war.

Posted by: pj at June 15, 2005 9:00 PM

Shakespeare, William, The Life of King Henry the Fifth, Act I. Scene II. Line 248:

K. Hen.: We are no tyrant, but a Christian king;
Unto whose grace, our passion is as subject,
as are our wretches fetter’d in our prisons:
Therefore with frank and with uncurbed plainness,
tell us the Dauphin’s mind.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 15, 2005 10:36 PM

Every tyrant thinks that God is with him.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 16, 2005 8:10 PM

Every atheist thinks himself God.

Posted by: oj at June 16, 2005 8:47 PM

If it takes more than one lifetime to accomplish, it wasn't easy.

You get only one.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 19, 2005 5:11 PM

and you'll never forgive Him for that, but, don't worry, He forgives you.

Posted by: oj at June 19, 2005 5:45 PM