Anglo-American Culture, Chapter Three

Chapter Three

The Magna Carta

Pre-reading vocabulary and phrases:

Reign:

Livelihood:

Habeas Corpus:

Due Process:

From the time of William the Conqueror until King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, the king ruled by “divine right.” This means that the king’s power comes from God. More importantly, it also means that the King can break the law whenever he wishes, he can change the law whenever he wishes and nobody can challenge him.

King John, (1166-1216), ruled England from 1199 until his death in 1216. The King of England had, traditionally, also controlled a part of northern France. However, King Philip II of France, early in John’s reign, conquered those French provinces. Philip succeeded for a number of reasons. First, John was cruel to the Normans and the nobles in England. Secondly, he did not have enough money or soldiers. John’s actions made both of those problems worse as his reign continued.

First, he forced the nobles to collect very high taxes from people so that he could attack France again. When this failed, he raised taxes once more and made laws that people could only use police or legal services if they paid a fee to the King. John also tried to control the Catholic Church and stop the election of Stephen Langton (a catholic bishop). This caused a very unpopular conflict with the Pope and resulted in all English churches closing for three years.

Because John continually ignored the wishes and advice of the nobles, the church members and the general population, the nobles started a revolt in 1215 and captured London. As a condition for peace, John had to sign the Magna Carta.

Pay special attention to the way Magna Carta law differs from Divine Right.

The Magna Carta

JOHN, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his officials and loyal subjects, Greeting.

KNOW THAT BEFORE GOD, for the health of our soul and those of our ancestors and heirs, to the honour of God, the exaltation of the holy Church, and the better ordering of our kingdom, at the advice of our reverend fathers Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England, and cardinal of the holy Roman Church, Henry archbishop of Dublin, William bishop of London, Peter bishop of Winchester, Jocelin bishop of Bath and Glastonbury, Hugh bishop of Lincoln, Walter Bishop of Worcester, William bishop of Coventry, Benedict bishop of Rochester, Master Pandulf subdeacon and member of the papal household, Brother Aymeric master of the knighthood of the Temple in England, William Marshal earl of Pembroke, William earl of Salisbury, William earl of Warren, William earl of Arundel, Alan de Galloway constable of Scotland, Warin Fitz Gerald, Peter Fitz Herbert, Hubert de Burgh seneschal of Poitou, Hugh de Neville, Matthew Fitz Herbert, Thomas Basset, Alan Basset, Philip Daubeny, Robert de Roppeley, John Marshal, John Fitz Hugh, and other loyal subjects:

Preamble: These are the most important players in the Magna Carta, King John and Stephen Langton, Bishop of Cantebury foremost amongst them. The others are mostly church officials and nobles. It is important to realize that not all of the nobles had rebelled. If they had, there probably would not have been a Magna Carta and the nobles would have simply killed King John instead

(1) FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church’s elections – a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it – and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity.

This says that that the Catholic Church in England is free from the King’s power. According to the Magna Carta, the church can ignore the king’s preference and choose whomever they like as bishop. Bishop Stephen Langton’s role is evident in this provision. Because of his power, freedom for the church is the first part of the Magna Carta.

 

TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs:

The second paragraph of this chapter extended freedoms originally given only to the barons to include “all free men” forever. At the time, “free men” were about 10% of the population. However, over time, the term “free man” expanded to include almost every English citizen.

 

(17) Ordinary lawsuits shall not follow the royal court around, but shall be held in a fixed place.

 

This addresses the idea of making a permanent court. Before the Magna Carta, the court followed the king. There was no place to store legal records. This made it very difficult to schedule legal matters

 

(18) Inquests of novel disseisin, mort d’ancestor, and darrein presentment shall be taken only in their proper county court. We ourselves, or in our absence abroad our chief justice, will send two justices to each county four times a year, and these justices, with four knights of the county elected by the county itself, shall hold the assizes in the county court, on the day and in the place where the court meets.

 

This section says that certain types of legal problems will be handled by local courts, supervised by the main court. The main court would send representatives four times a year to make sure the local courts were being fair.

 

(20) For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a husbandman the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.

(21) Earls and barons shall be fined only by their equals, and in proportion to the gravity of their offence.

20 and 21 ensure that punishment is proportional to the crime. For minor crimes, the court cannot give a punishment so strong it will destroy the criminal’s livelihood. It also says that you cannot be punished for a crime if there aren’t witnesses who swear to tell the truth.

(24) No sheriff, constable, coroners, or other royal officials are to hold lawsuits that should be held by the royal justices.

This section ensures that the law will be the same all over England, not different in each city.

 

(36) In future nothing shall be paid or accepted for the issue of a writ of inquisition of life or limbs. It shall be given gratis, and not refused.

 

This says that no serious punishment can be given to a criminal without an official investigation. This is the predecessor to habeas corpus.

 

(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.

This outlines a key part of what we now call due process. Many of the nobles thought this was one of the most important parts of the Magna Carta, since it got rid of the arbitrary use of the law.

 

(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

This section says that no “free man” can be sent to jail, fined or exiled without an official court and a primitive version of what is now a jury.

(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This says that access to justice – police and courts – is always free. Before, because of John’s laws, if you didn’t have enough money to pay the king, you could not use the courts or police services.

(45) We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.

This sets a standard for those who enforce and administer the law – they must “know the law” and “keep it well.”

 

(60) All these customs and liberties that we have granted shall be observed in our kingdom in so far as concerns our own relations with our subjects. Let all men of our kingdom, whether clergy or laymen, observe them similarly in their relations with their own men.

 

This means that all the freedoms and laws that restrict the king also restrict the nobles. That means, like the king cannot take a noble’s land without legal permission, a noble cannot take his servant’s house without permission. This became one of the most historically important parts of the Magna Carta because future lawmakers were able to use it to guarantee many freedoms to normal people.

Study Questions:

Rome’s biggest innovation was to assimilate foreigners. William’s innovation was to centralize power. What is the Magna Carta’s biggest innovation?

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France, Spain, Germany and Italy maintained “divine right” for hundreds of years longer than England did. Do you think this gave England an advantage? Why or why not?

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Do you think Korea ever had a document similar to the Magna Carta? Please explain.

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How did Korea deal with weak, unpopular kings like John?

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What, in your opinion, is the most important part of the Magna Carta? Why?

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