WHAT DID MAGNA CARTA DO?
As already noted, the Charter was both an affirmation of the “good old” laws of England and a treaty of peace between the King, the barons, his subjects and importantly the English Church. The specific subjects were the English Church and all free men.
The Charter (in its 1215 form) in clause 1 gives freedom to the English Church and guarantees its rights and liberties. In its terms and position (being followed by a preambular statement catching up all free men in what follows), clause 1 gives special treatment to the English Church and it is a carefully drafted clause. It makes a grant to God. It specifically separates itself from what follows, being in consequence of the dispute that arose between King and barons. The distinction between Church and free men is emphasised in the final clause 63.
The clauses that follow in the 1215 version, after the preamble, deal with:
- concessions by the King regulating financial profits that could be extracted from feudal rights such as wardships, widows and escheats and provisions for trusts (clauses 2-8);
- the realm as a corporate entity capable of self-expression (clauses 12, 14); further, the King being bound contractually to the community of his subjects, to popular consent – in effect, the King being placed under the rule of law; and the beginnings of “no taxation without representation”;
- the ancient liberties of London and all cities, boroughs, towns and ports – perhaps 100 corporate communities (clause 13); – fining of earls and barons only by their peers and proportionately to the offence (clause 21);
- the judgment of free men by peers generally (clause 39);
- a general settlement, intended to ensure good lordship for all, great and small not just between King and barons (clause 60);
- enforcement of the Charter by a group of 25 barons [25 having been observed by St Augustine as being the square of 5, being the number of books of law in the Old Testament Pentateuch] (clause 61);
- protection of subjects from the rapaciousness of sheriffs, foresters and other local officials (clauses 9, 16, 20, 23-26, 28-33, 38, 44-45, 47-48);
- law and legal procedure (clauses 17-19, 24, 34, 36, 38, 39, 40, 45);
- national measures for wine, corn and cloth (clause 35); – protection for international trade (clause 41); – the separation and independence of the judiciary and judicial competence (clauses 24, 45);
- limitations on the King’s manipulation of debt, especially to Jews (clause 9-11, 26);
- protection of widows and heiresses, but limits on a woman’s capacity to testify (clause 54);
- negotiation points for further discussion (clauses 47-48, 53 on forests; 56-59 on peace with the Welsh and Scots);
- removal of armed aliens bent on trouble (clause 51);
- dismissal of alien constables (clause 50);
- transmission of the benefits of the charter from the King to his subjects and from all in the kingdom to their own people (clause 60);
- ruling out the possibility of an appeal to the Pope to annul the Charter (clause 61). No reprisals were recorded against King John, even though justified. A difficulty that could not be contracted away, of course, was that the King was sovereign under God and the Charter was an act of the King’s grace, issued in his name – it was just a promise by the King and one that he could undo.
No reprisals were recorded against King John, even though justified. A difficulty that could not be contracted away, of course, was that the King was sovereign under God and the Charter was an act of the King’s grace, issued in his name – it was just a promise by the King and one that he could undo.