WHAT IS THE MAGNA CARTA?
Documents began to be prepared from late 1214 through to June 1215, including the so-called Unknown Charter probably dating from the northern spring of 1215. Various drafts of clauses 5 (perhaps more precisely “chapters”) survived and were later distributed in various places – sometimes with provisions that differed from the sealed Charter (eg clause 2). King John, seeing the writing on the wall, had granted new privileges to bishops and barons, abolished large tracts of royal forest, pacified Bayonne to hold Gascony, granted privileges to the men of London and made concessions to barons and opponents about the arbitration of disputes. Negotiations were well and truly under way; but it was too little, too late for John.
On 5 May 1215 the malcontents gathered at Brackley in Northamptonshire and publicly repudiated their oaths of allegiance to the King. On 17 May a group seized London (including Westminster, the Royal seat) on behalf of the rebel barons. Negotiations continued with some sophistication on the wording of an agreement between King and barons as both sides tried earnestly to preserve the peace. Langton was also very concerned to ensure that the English Church was also properly considered and in the result predominated over the barons.
A place had to be selected for the agreement to be sealed. Runnymede was at an appropriate distance from both the rebel stronghold of London (and Staines) and the King’s castle at Windsor. (This was the first time a name had been recorded for the place which was sometimes an island, sometimes riverside land.) The date when agreement was reached was 15 June 1215.
When agreement was formalised, the document was called the “Charter of Liberties” – the title “Magna Carta” came in 1217 to distinguish it from the Forest Charter of that year, a smaller charter of liberties covering land under the law of the forest.
As noted above, liberties were understood a little differently from modern usage. The word liberty was coined by the Greeks, meaning immunity from taxation. The Romans used it to mean negation of slavery – a person at liberty not being the property of someone else. This became the sense in which it was used by the Anglo-Saxons – denoting freedom from dominion by royalty, such as to be enjoyed by particular subjects and institutions like the cathedral or monastic churches. At the time of the Charter of Liberties it meant freedom from tyranny or perhaps even privileges – well short of the catalogue of rights and freedoms in international and domestic instruments that we now understand as liberties; so it is perhaps ill-judged to attempt to extract a list of them from the document, as can be done (for example) from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and its progeny and even from the American and French declarations of the 18th Century.
Much of the Charter of Liberties reflects the Coronation Charter of Henry I of 1100 and the Laws of Edward the Confessor (compiled around 1140, although Edward lived a century earlier). Some of it reflects more international influences from Europe. Some of it was no doubt inspired by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury.
The original Charter of Liberties was handwritten in mediaeval Latin on untanned animal skin, vellum. It was over 3,500 words and was 63 clauses long. In addition to the King, at least 36 individuals are named in the document including English nobles and an Irish Archbishop, the King of Scotland and his Constable, a Cardinal of the Roman Church, an Italian clerk, at least ten Frenchmen and eight of the relatives and friends of the King’s henchman in Tours on the Loire. The copy bearing the King’s seal has been lost.
The first and most important clause granted liberties (freedoms from royal control) to the Church, not the barons. “Free men” (perhaps up to 40% of the population of England of between two and four million people at that time, being the nobility, landowners and townsmen and excluding serfs owing servile obligations to their masters) then had their liberties declared in subsequent clauses. This emphasis on the Church was reinforced in the final clause 63.