Magna Carta I (1215)
Bill Long 1/13/05
Understanding an Old Classic
Nowadays if you accost people on the street and ask them to tell you what Magna Carta ("MC") was, you would probably receive two distinct reactions. Most people would look at you blankly and pass on. A lesser number would say that it is an old English document that is related in some way to our freedoms today. No one would be able to tell you the contents of more than one paragraph of the Charter.
And perhaps this isn't unusual or particularly lamentable. If you had asked one of the original grantees of the Charter (27 specific names are mentioned in the Preamble) whether the document would be celebrated and studied nearly eight centuries later, he no doubt would have looked at you and said, "But why?"
It is this tension between the perception of the Charter as somehow embodying great ideas that underlie our freedoms and the Charter as speaking only to the age in which it was promulgated that stimulates these mini-essays. The purpose of these essays is to put the MC in its historical context, to understand its publication history and to review the meaning of some of its provisions. If by the end of these essays you have a grasp of the time-bound as well as time-transcending character of the document, I will have achieved my aim.
By "publication history" I am not really referring to the fact that there are only four copies of the 1215 Charter that survive, two in the British Museum and one each in the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury (the MC was sent out to all the cathedrals and singficant land-holders in the realm). I am referring to the various versions and receptions of the Charter in the 13th century. Here is the story.
The original charter, agreed to by the King and produced in Chancery in June 1215 (traditional date), was not divided into paragraphs. Ever since the 13th century, it is customary to number 63 paragraphs in the original. It really was foisted upon a weak king--more of this later-- by wealthy landowners when the king was most vulnerable, and so it has provisions that grant astonishingly broad protections to these landowners. As a result, when John died in 1216 and was followed on the throne by his 9 year-old son, Henry III, the MC was reissued in that year, with about 20 fewer chapters/paragraphs. In 1217 it was reissued yet again, with five or six paragraphs broken off and placed in a separate document called the Charter of the Forest. Then, in 1225, Henry III reissued the document once again, with 37 chapters/paragraphs. It was this 1225 version that was recognized as an authoritative and foundational English statute in 1297 under Edward I.
This publication history accounts for seemingly conflicting notations in 17th century and contemporary citations to MC. For example, when Coke argued in Parliament in 1628 in favor of the Petition of Right, he placed great weight on Chapter 39 of the original MC, which is Chapter 29 of the one that is printed in most books today. It really isn't difficult to understand how 39 became 29, though it takes a little work. Professors will be very impressed, however, if you are able to sort things like this out and be able to present them confidently from memory. I learned early that a few crucial things memorized and recited at right time could convince others that I knew much more than I actually did.
An Example of a Paragraph Dropped
The next essay will go into some of the historical background of the MC. I would like to close this essay with reference to a paragraph that was dropped after 1215 but appears as #61 in the 1215 Charter. It shows what desperate straits King John was in when he signed it. Chapter 61 is the longest one in the original MC, consisting of about 1/9 of the whole. It may be called the "enforcement" paragraph because it provides for a committee of 25 barons of the kingdom to make sure that MC is implemented and observed. What is interesting are the sanctions (punishments) envisioned if King John breaches MC. It provides:
"If we, or our justiciar,...offend in any way against anyone or transgress any of the articles of the peace...and the offence be notified to four of the aforesaid twenty-five barons, these four barons shall come to us....and, laying the transgression before us, shall petition us to have that transgression corrected without delay."
If the King doesn't correct the transgression within forty days, "the aforesaid four barons shall refer that case to the rest of the twenty-five barons." What, pray tell, can the twenty-five barons do? They do not have to write letters, beg the King, give another hearing, grant more time to comply. Here is what they "shall" do.
"Those twenty-five barons together with the community of the whole land shall distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely, by seizing castles, lands, possessions, and in such other ways as they can, saving our person and the persons of our queen and our children, until, in their opinion, amends have been made; and when amends have been made, they shall obey us as they did before."
Let's take a deep breath for a moment. What John agreed to in this provision is like nothing ever seen in English history--he agreed that if he didn't faithfully follow MC, all the people ("the community of the whole land") can distrain (forcibly take) everything they want from the King. What is this but the King's consent to open rebellion or, to put it differently, how can you distinguish between "obedient" seizing of castles and lands and "disobedient" seizing of the same? And, isn't the last clause a bit of a hoot? After seizing all the royal jewels, so to speak, the people are supposed to return to a meek obedience to the duly recognized authority. No wonder Henry III's regent sought to remove this provision as quickly as possible in 1216.
Now we are beginnning to see the deeply human element in MC (at least in 1215). Let's turn to the historical background and the provisions of MC.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long