Linda J Pifer looking pleased with herself.
In Celebration of the 800th year of Magna Carta
By Linda J Pifer
Kings issued coronation charters before Magna Carta; Henry the first, son of William the Conqueror, issued his Charter of Liberties to promise a just rule, the Church’s financial freedom and relief from overregulation. Like those before him, he kept few of his promises, but his Charter came to importance 65 years later as the foundation for Magna Carta.
King John suffered excommunication in 1208 after rejecting the pope’s nomination of Stephen Langton to Archbishop of Canterbury, and England’s people lost their ability to receive religious blessings.
A party of barons presented grievances to the archbishop, but after five years when the king knelt before the pope, his clergy, and barons in St. Paul’s Cathedral, he left the barons’ concerns unaddressed.
His failure to reclaim Normandy after expansive taxation of his barons resulted in the nickname of ‘soft-sword’ and many renounced their oaths of allegiance to take Robert Fitz Walter as their leader. Their capture of London, Exeter and Lincoln, forced the king to begin negotiations at Runnymede. Concessions were formalized on June 15, 1215 and the king’s great seal affixed. The Charter of Liberties was produced by the royal chancery upon a “piece of sheepskin inscribed with oak gall and sealed with beeswax and resin” later becoming known as Great Charter, or Magna Carta in Latin.
As the barons renewed their allegiance but held the city until the Charter was in place, multiple copies of the original were sent to each of the king’s county courts. Meanwhile, the king regretted his approval and used his renewed favor with the pope to request its annulment. The pope granted such in August and a letter sent to Archbishop Langton ordered excommunication of the nine rebel barons and others for violating terms of Magna Carta. Civil war again began and mercenaries were hired by the king while his barons renounced their allegiance and invited Prince Louis, son of the King of France, to accept the English crown.
John’s reign was fraught with inept leadership and a lack of political and military talent. He didn’t follow his own laws, communicated ineffectively, and could not balance his power with that of the Church.
Most peasants and the unfree peasantry (villeins) could neither read nor write. Only children designated as future clergymen (one in ten) were schooled in Latin. Due to the short term of the Charter and its great length, many outside the barons would not know nor have opportunity to hear its contents. It provided no benefit for the villeins who could only seek justice through their feudal lords.
Free men, knights and peasantry who owned their land or lived in the city more than one year, should have been the main focus for education on the new Charter. Justiciars, sheriffs, and their bailiffs would need it since they were to put the Charter into immediate practice.
Church representatives present at negotiation and monks who helped to copy the Charter for the courts could have assisted them, but would the king request it of the pope?
History shows most clauses were not honored by royals through the next three centuries. One might ask why we celebrate this short-lived document since it was barely set into county justiciars’ hands before being annulled. But we see its reference called upon repeatedly, especially its clause 39 which took on new life in future years; in 1225, Edward I made its words part of statute law; De Montfort’s Parliament in 1265; and as a guarantee of trial by jury in the 14th century; Sir Edward Coke in the 17th century to declare individual liberty; and the Petition of Right, a proto-constitution that parliament forced upon Charles I.
Was its initial failure due to a lack of constitution and law? As time passed, it became clear royal power should be limited by the same law every man is held accountable to.
With the advent of the United States of America’s Constitution and parliament’s evolution to the democratic process, Magna Carta seemed to fade somewhat but an interpretation of it is still called upon today.
In America, The Bill of Rights in 1791; Women’s right to vote in 1920; and the Afro-American Civil Rights Act of 1968, echo the Magna Carta’s promise to free men and at last (to King John’s horror?) free women as well.
With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 by the United Nations, Magna Carta’s true intent was heralded to the world.
Hear Ye all Noble and Free Citizenry of the Realm.
Now it is hereby declared by King John, most honoured and beloved Ruler of England after much consideration of and negotiation with his loyal subjects, a Charter of Liberties has been written to the advantage of all free men and acknowledges their right to equal treatment, unencumbered and undelayed.
Further, the Charter establishes a court of twenty-five Barons to oversee compliance of the King and his loyal Barons to its directives and instructs the court of Barons to vote on matters such as taxation prior to its levy.
The Charter establishes its own enforcement by the Barons court and empowers it with a majority vote to ultimately confiscate properties from those who violate its directives.
The King’s county courts shall be given responsibility for dispensing justice to free men according to the Charter’s clauses and all men; earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, bailiffs and faithful free subjects will receive and conduct themselves accordingly in their daily living.
Effective immediately, to ensure understanding of the Magna Carta, copies of the new Charter will be dispersed to the county courts and at least one or more persons knowledgeable in the Charter will assist the court in educating all free men of each county in its full content.
By Order of His Royal Excellency King John of England
Hereby Signed by my hand this 25th day of June in the year of 1215
Lord Chancellor to His Excellency
Walter De Gray
© Linda J Pifer 2015