Magna Carta Libertatum
, commonly referred to as the Magna Carta, or “Great Charter,” is a historical document drafted by English Cardinal and Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, and agreed to by King John of England in 1215. It was an attempt to broker peace between the unpopular King and a group of barons rebelling against his rule. It is considered the first document of its kind, guaranteeing the rights of people living under an absolute monarch, and is considered the forerunner of many future documents of human rights, including the United States Constitution. The Magna Carta promised the protection of the rights of the Church, protected the nobles from illegal imprisonment, guaranteed the right to swift justice, and limited feudal payments to the crown. It was to be administered by a council of twenty-five barons. However, neither side lived up to its commitments, and the charter was annulled by Pope Innocent II, leading to the First Baron’s War. However, the charter was eventually amended and readmitted, becoming part of English political life. Eventually, it led to the end of the absolute monarchy and the current Constitutional monarchy. Today, four exemplifications, or original copies, of the 1215 document remain in effect, held by the British Library and cathedrals in Lincoln and Salisbury. Although it is no longer in effect, it remains widely studied as one of the most critical historical documents of all time.
After a preamble in which King John and the Barons reintroduce themselves, and God is invoked to stress the importance of the document, the document takes the form of sixty clauses suggested by people in order of the importance of their titles. These demands include the right of the Church to elect its own officials, the end of the abuse of inheritance taxes, and the end of taxes on underage heirs to inherit family titles. Protecting the children of barons is a key theme, as it also includes a ban on guardians destroying their heir’s property, and ensuring the maintenance of their assets until they come of age. Next are clarifications on the rights of marriage, including ensuring that arranged marriages are to a similar class. They guarantee the right of widows to stay in their husband’s property for forty days, and ban forcing widows to remarry. The king promises to not seize land for debt except as a last resort, and underage heirs are freed from interest payments and guaranteed a reasonable time to pay debts. The king promises no new taxes on barons, promises to respect London’s traditions, and vows a meeting with the barons before any new policies are instituted. The barons agree to the same when it comes to their serfs. No new taxes on knights, a guarantee of stable court hearings for trials, the establishment of county courts and a structure for trials, and a guarantee of fair and not overly punitive punishments are established. Both the aristocracy and church officials are guaranteed trials by their peers.
Next are relief of building regulations, regulations for appointing judges, and a freeze on rent increases. The king, however, can seize property to pay debts until the debt is paid otherwise. Church officials will divide-up property if someone dies without a will. Government officials are not allowed to give out IOUs, issue new taxes, or steal modes of transportation or firewood unilaterally. The king can seize land from convicted felons, but only for a year. No one else can seize land without a local trial. Regulations on the use of fish traps and standard measurements for grain and cloth are established. Rules for guardianship of minor heirs are established. Next up are court rules. Taxes will not be used as punishment without trial, court officials cannot be used as witnesses, and punishment can only be imposed with a guilty verdict. People cannot buy their way out of punishment. New taxes cannot be imposed on merchants, unless the merchant’s country is at war with England,then he will be treated like English merchants in that country. The right to travel outside England is established, as well as the right to return except in case of exile. No new taxes on forfeited titles, protection from being summoned frivolously, and proper appointment of judges is established.
The Barons establish the right of religious abbey founders to govern themselves. The king promises to ensure open access to royal forests and rivers. Knights will be appointed to govern the use of land. Any hostages taken during the skirmishes that led to the drafting of the Magna Carta will be released by the king. However, those who rebelled against the king may lose their titles. They all agree to end the fighting and send home any foreign mercenaries. Anyone punished without a trial will be released. The current king is absolved of any disputes stemming from previous reigns. Women are protected from being forced to serve as witnesses in court trials. The king promises to return any fines that were unjustly collected. All rights extended to Englishmen apply to the Welsh as well, without any restrictions. The king agrees to treat the King of Scotland in the same way as he does the English barons. Finally, it is stated that this all applies to all people, both clergy and ordinary men. Finally, rules for the council of barons are established, the king pardons all people involved in the dispute and apologizes for his role, repeating that the English Church is free and this document exists in perpetuity.
Stephen Langton was an English Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church who served as Archbishop of Canterbury between 1207 and 1228. He was at the center of the dispute between King John and Pope Innocent III, when King John refused to acknowledge his election as Archbishop. He was later responsible for brokering the signing of the Magna Carta. He was a prolific writer, credited for the modern arrangement of Bible chapters and many writings and analyses on the texts.