Frequently referred to as the first text that ever codified human rights, the Magna Carta was signed in June 1215, in Runnymede, near Windsor, England.
The Great Charter brought a temporary end to a long revolt against King John by his barons. A major reason for the revolt was the heavy taxes levied by the Crown, following the loss of the French territories which had drastically reduced the State income. After the barons had entered London by force, the King had to negotiate. Granting individual rights and liberties, and recognizing the right of the Church of England to freely elect its leaders, the Charter signalled the recognition of secular law by the Crown of England.
In addition to the revolt of the barons, a dispute over the right and privileges of the Roman Catholic Church had been ongoing in England. In 1206, the designation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church, became a major issue. While normally appointed by the King, the monks of Canterbury had decided they wanted to elect the Archbishop and sent their choice to Rome. The King responded by appointing his own candidate as Archbishop, John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich. In turn, Pope Innocent III designated a third choice, Cardinal Stephen Langton.
Originally from Lincolnshire, Langton had taught at the Paris Sorbonne University, with the Pope as one of his students. Like another Archbishop of Canterbury - Thomas Beckett, coincidentally (or maybe not) also a Pontigny two-year exilee -, Langton believed in the independence of the Church from the Crown.
King John refused to recognize the Pope’s choice, and for six years, from 1207 to 1213, in the Cistertian Abbey of Pontigny, in Burgundy, Langton waited for the King to let him into England as Archbishop. A series of retortion measures ensued from the Pope’s side, such as the interdiction of public services, including masses and marriages, and the excommunication of the King, until King John had no choice but to accept the Pope’s decision.
As head of the Church, Langton played a key role in the negotiation between the King and his barons, which led to the signature of the Charter. Because of his role, some sources have suggested that the Magna Carta was actually drafted in Pontigny during Langton’s exile, or that at least the ideas it contains were first conceived there. It is also suggested that it was Langton who knew of the Charter of Liberties issued by King Henry I when he ascended the throne in 1100. The wording of the 1215 text closely follows some articles of the earlier text, and similar rights are granted. It is the circumstances under which the texts were issued that differ majorly: the earlier text was proclaimed willingly by King Henry whereas the latter was imposed on King John by the barons.
Originally drafted in Latin, the Magna Carta was translated into English, and is today recognized as the first text codifying individual rights in England. In 1956, Sir Winston Churchill had this to say about the Charter:
Here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.
Not surprisingly, the Magna Carta granted liberties to the Church first, including freedom of elections, and then to the freemen governed by the laws of England.
1. In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs for ever that the English church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs for ever. We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs for ever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs for ever.
Some of the articles are extremely specific, such as the article giving an actual figure for the fee earls, barons, or knights have to pay to the Crown before being able to receive their inheritance.
2. If any of our earls or barons, or others holding of us in chief by military service shall have died, and at the time of his death his heir shall be of full age and owe ” relief” he shall have his inheritance on payment of the ancient relief, namely the heir or heirs of an earl, 100 pounds for a whole earl’s barony; the heir or heirs of a baron, 100 pounds for a whole barony; the heir or heirs of a knight, 100 shillings at most for a whole knight’s fee; and whoever owes less let him give less, according to the ancient custom of fiefs.
Sixty-three articles in total spell out the rights and liberties granted by King John, which include anti-corruption and fair trade clauses as well as the right for widows not to remarry against their will. Great attention was paid to address any potential issue of concern. As an example, in three cases only can feudal taxes be imposed:
12. No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid.
Also worth noting is the order in which the various rights are listed. The essential rights to justice and to a fair trial are mentioned towards the end .
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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land..
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.
Going beyond just rights, the Magna Carta also serves to promote standards, such as the standardization of weights and measures which comes as article 35, before the right to justice. This demonstrated a forward-looking vision compared to other parts of Europe. France for one only adopted similar measures with the Décret relatif aux poids et aux mesures during the revolution, on 18 germinal an 3 (7 April 1795).
35. Let there be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm; and one measure of ale; and one measure of corn, to wit, ” the London quarter;” and one width of cloth (whether dyed, or russet, or “halberget” ), to wit, two ells within the selvages; of weights also let it be as of measures.
50. We will entirely remove from their bailiwicks, the relations of Gerard Athee (so that in future they shall have no bailiwick in England); namely, Engelard of Cigogne, Peter, Guy, and Andrew of Chanceaux, Guy of Cigogne, Geoffrey of Martigny with his brothers, Philip Mark with his brothers and his nephew Geoffrey, and the whole brood of the same.
Even though King John did not respect the Charter - he actually died one year after signing it-, the text was reissued in 1216, 1217, and 1225, then in 1297 and it became the source of other legal texts. With a total of 4,699 words, the Magna Carta not only provides a reference text as to the rights and freedoms of the English freemen of 1215, it also offers a fascinating picture of English society at the time.