This is a brief sketch of the circumstances in which the Great Charter (Magna Carta) came to be written. It is reproduced not just for the terms of the agreement per se or the important extension of baronial rights to the people at large that it contains but to publish the enforcement clause at the end.
In the case of King John, an absolute monarch of the most awful type, deriving his authority from God as confirmed by the Vicar of Christ in Rome, this contractual liability was for him a call to civil war. Nevertheless a social contract should have a means of enforcement. This is the distinctive feature of Magna Carta that is absent from the French Rights of the Citizen and the American Bill of Rights and other similar documents. The assumption of the drafters of those charters that the people themselves would value their rights sufficiently to defend them has turned out to be wrong.
At the time of King John, the barons and the clergy, as the two main land-owning groups with the King, had come into alliance. Former Kings had kept them apart to preserve monarchical primacy but first Richard’s sale of every valuable national thing to finance his Crusade then John’s incompetent kingship and routine abuse of the barons and their wives and daughters had forced them together under the leadership of the Cardinal Langton who led the English clergy as Archbishop of Canterbury. Both groups regretted the loss of their privileges due to John’s abaseness before the Pope.
On 25th August 1213 an assembly of barons occurred in London and Cardinal Langton read the Charter of Henry I to them which was enthusiastically received. It had been the practice of several British Kings to limit their authority by Charter although these days only Magna Carta is recalled. The following year the barons met again and agreed to force King John to restore the terms of Henry’s Charter. On 5th Jan 1215 they met in arms and demanded the renewal of the Charter and the laws of Edward the Confessor. King John asked for time and used the delay to divide his enemies. He offered a Charter to the catholic clergy allowing them to elect their own bishops and abbots and only requiring in return that they send an embassy to Rome to protest the acts of the barons to the Pope. The church accepted these terms and the Pope subsequently condemned the barons but they were not impressed.
On 19th April 1215 the barons met at Stamford in Lincolnshire and confirmed they had sworn to introduce the Charter. The King refused; the barons renounced their Oaths of Allegiance to him and appointed Robert Fitz-Walter as general of the army of the barons and clergy. On 24th May 1215 the barons occupied London. King John retired to Hampshire escorted by a mere seven knights. He tried to negotiate and proposed mediation by the Pope but was refused. On 13th June 1215 a conference opened on the island of Runnymead (in the Thames between Windsor and Staines). The two parties formed separate camps – barons & clergy on the one side with the King on the other. The King then adopted the preliminary articles and, after four days on 19th June, he granted the Great Charter, dealing with the interests of the clergy, the nobility and the people.
The clergy are little mentioned in the Charter as they had received immunities and privileges from John in his earlier attempt to woo them from the barons. These were merely confirmed in the first article of Magna Carta.
Articles 2 and 3 dealt with the amount due to the King on inheriting land, formerly indeterminate. Articles 6 to 8 dealt with the marriages of feudal wards and the marriages of widows and children of vassals. Payments made to or on behalf of the King, other than those authorised by the National Council, were limited to a reasonable amount for his ransom and to the equipping of his first son as a knight (horse, saddle, armour, etc.) and to celebrate the marriage of his first daughter.
Article 14 is the King’s agreement to call a national council of arch-bishops, bishops, abbots, earls and great barons by letters from the King explaining the purpose to assemble (by means of viscounts and bailiffs) all those dependent on the King at intervals of less than 40 days at an appointed place. Decisions may be reached by those assembled notwithstanding that some invitees have not arrived. (NB – the Great Charter is the first extant document that distinguishes between great and lesser barons, great and lesser clergy. It may thus be conceived of as the precursor of the two houses of parliament. It is Article 14 that gives it its special charm for representative government).
Several articles limit the rights of the King on the lands of his tenants, to fix fines according to the offence committed, to fix the period lands are sequestrated for felony, All these terms gave the barons greater certainty of their assets and independence. (NB – it is said these Articles gave the Barons access to the revenues of Domesday Book but I have not found express authority for that proposition)
Almost all the immunities that the barons received from the King were granted by the barons to their own vassals. Article 15 limited the right of barons to fix fines on their own vassals except insofar as the King could fix fines on the barons.
Justice was made predictable. Article 17 – The Court of Common Pleas was set-up in a fixed place and would not go on circuit. Article 18 – The King or Chief Justice will send four times a year two judges to each county where four local knights will assist them in holding the assizes. Article 39 – no man may be arrested, gaoled, exiled or dispossessed of his house except by the judgement of his peers and the law of the land. Article 40 – justice shall not be sold, delayed or refused to any one. Article 41 – the King will appoint only capable judges. Article 38 – Judges may not condemn without first hearing witnesses. Article 32 – Judges must reinstate any man who has been dispossessed without legal judgement.
Article 53 – The King will repair the injuries sustained under Henry II and Richard I. Article 23 – The King will cease taxing locals for construction of bridges.
Articles 20, 26, 28, 30 and 31 – the King will cease annoyances on townsmen, merchants and villeins.
Article 13 – the King guarantees London and all other cities, boroughs, towns and harbours the possession of their ancient customs and liberties.
Article 41 – the King grants full and free liberty to all merchants to enter or leave England, to remain there, to travel by land or water and to buy and sell without oppression according to ancient usages.
To have these terms respected, recalling they were extorted from the King, required Article 61 – the barons shall elect 25 of their number to vigilantly assure the terms are adhered to. Their power is unlimited. If the King or his agents violate the agreement, the barons will denounce Him and demand performance. If the King fails to perform the barons may, after 40 days of demanding it, prosecute the King and deprive Him of his lands and castles until He gives satisfaction.
Article 61 perpetuated the struggle indefinitely and left its settlement to trial by battle but Article 61 also united the barons as they had never been united before. The Council of 25 was led by William d’Albiney.
Having made this agreement, King John had the Pope proclaim that his agreement had been coerced and was not enforceable. The barons were all excommunicated by the Pope. John recruited an army of Brabanters and invaded England. He took the castles on the south coast and besieged Rochester, the only important fortification between him and the rest of the country. Wm d’Albiney was at Rochester with its proprietor, the Baron Cornhill. They defended with the help of some Knights Templar but no help came. Eventually they were starved, overwhelmed and killed. John then extended his rule over the entire country. The barons called on the King of France to eject John and assume the sovereignty of England. He agreed but at about the same time, John died and his infant son was declared King. The barons could control the boy through a Regency and repudiated their agreement with the French King. The terms of Magna Carta were then enforced.