By David Carpenter
When England’s barons clipped the wings of a tyrannical king, they established principles that still influence British justice 800 years on, says David Carpenter
The year of Magna Carta, 1215, when an English ruler was first subjected to the law, has resonated down the ages as a landmark in Britain’s constitutional history. Indeed, in a BBC History Magazine poll, its anniversary was voted the most suitable date on which the nation should celebrate Britishness.
The Charter itself still lives. Its most fundamental chapters remain on the Statute Book of the UK as barriers to arbitrary rule. They condemn the denial, sale and delay of justice, and forbid imprisonment and dispossession save by lawful judgement of one’s peers (social equals), or the law of the land.
The Charter was negotiated at Runnymede between 10 and 15 June 1215, with King John riding down each day from Windsor, and the barons encamped in their tents across the meadows beside the Thames.
On 15 June, John, tricky to the end, refused more concessions and simply sealed the Charter – “take it or leave it” – thereby cleverly keeping the names of the 25 barons who were to enforce its terms out of the document, this because they had still to be chosen.
John hoped the Charter would become no more than a toothless symbol of his generosity to the kingdom; the barons hoped that its terms would be rigorously enforced and indeed extended. The result was civil war.
By September, John had got the pope to quash the Charter. That month, the opposition barons deposed John and offered the throne to Louis, eldest son of King Philip II of France. He came to England in May 1216 and by the time of John’s death in October controlled more than half the kingdom.
In the north Alexander II of Scotland had gained Carlisle, and was making good his claims to Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumberland. In Wales, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, ruler of Gwynedd, had swept through the south and taken the royal bases of Cardigan and Carmarthen.
Yet John’s dynasty survived, and with it, paradoxically, the Charter. Its implantation into English political life was the work of the minority government of John’s son, Henry III, who was only nine on his accession. Magna Carta was also a British document. Both Alexander and Llywelyn had been with the rebels from the start, and both benefited from the Charter’s terms, terms which acknowledged “the law of Wales” and invoked for the Welsh, as for Alexander, the principle of judgement by peers.
Ultimately, as Wales and Scotland became part of a United Kingdom, their peoples too were embraced by the Charter’s protections. The Charter, however, was no panacea. Since the clause setting up the 25 barons was left out from post-1215 versions of the document, it had no constitutional means of enforcement.
It said nothing about how the king’s ministers were to be chosen, patronage distributed and policy decided, major holes which defined the political battleground of the later middle ages.
Yet the Charter made a profound difference. It clamped down on various sources of revenue. Henceforth the “relief” or inheritance tax paid by an earl or baron was to be £100, not the thousands of pounds sometimes demanded by John.
It facilitated the spread of the common law and made justice less open to bargaining or bribery. It gave the gentry concessions they could exploit to make the running of local government more acceptable. Above all it asserted a fundamental principle: the king was subject to the law, the law Magna Carta had made. As a result arbitrary rule became more difficult and resistance to it more legitimate.
- Extra pictures added by Deskarati. Read all of this excellent article by David Carpenter here Magna Carta: A turning point in English history
- David Carpenter is chair in medieval history at King’s College London and author of The Penguin History of Britain: The Struggle for Mastery – Britain 1066–1284