Magna Carta Libertatum

John Pine's 1733 engraving of the Magna Carta

Magna Carta Libertatum (Medieval Latin for “Great Charter of Freedoms”), commonly called Magna Carta (also Magna Charta; “Great Charter”), is a royal charter of rights agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215.

King John signing the Magna Carta in 1215

A 19th-century recreation of King John signing the Magna Carta. Rather than signing in writing, the document would have been authenticated with the Great Seal and applied by officials rather than King John himself.

First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Stephen Langton, to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised:

  • The protection of church rights
  • Protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment
  • Access to swift justice
  • and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown

These agreements were to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. However, neither side stood behind their commitments, and the Charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons’ War.

After King John’s death, the regency government of his young son, Henry III, reissued the document in 1216 that was stripped of some of its more radical content in an unsuccessful bid to build political support for their cause.

At the end of the war in 1217, it formed part of the peace treaty agreed upon at Lambeth, where the document acquired the name “Magna Carta” to distinguish it from the smaller Charter of the Forest, which was issued at the same time.

Short of funds, Henry III reissued the Charter in 1225 in exchange for a grant of new taxes.

King Edward I

Henry's son, Edward I, repeated the exercise in 1297 when it was confirmed as part of England’s statute law. Edward erected the remarkable structures in 13th-century Wales that are now huge tourist hotspots. He, and powerful lords, with his permission, as part of his invasion, conquest, and suppression of Wales in the years 1277-83 and thereafter. Edward defeated the local Welsh princes during the invasion and set about permanently colonizing the area by creating new fortified towns, protected by castles, in which English immigrants settled and administered the territories. The main fortified towns were Caerphilly, Denbigh, Harlech, Caernarfon, Conwy, Flint, Rhuddlan, Ruthin, Hope, Aberystwyth, and Beaumaris, in which the castles were built over the years 1284-1330. The campaign cost much money, all because of Edward’s desire to make short shrift of the Welsh in that vigorous campaign to impose his dominion over them.

Caernarfon Castle

The ward of Caernarfon Castle, showing (from left to right) the Black Tower, the Chamberlain's Tower, and the Eagle Tower. By the 17th century, the castle's domestic buildings had been stripped of valuable materials such as iron and lead. Castle image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Great Charter applied to Welsh and English political life and was typically renewed by each Monarch in turn. As time passed and the fledgling Parliament of England made new laws, the Great Charter lost some practical significance.

At the end of the 16th century, there was an upsurge in interest in Magna Carta. Lawyers and historians at the time believed that there was an ancient English constitution, going back to the days of the Anglo-Saxons, that protected individual English freedoms. They argued that the Norman invasion of 1066 had overthrown these rights and that the Magna Carta had been a popular attempt to restore them, making the Charter an essential foundation for the contemporary powers of Parliament and legal principles such as habeas corpus.

Although this historical account could have been better, jurists such as Sir Edward Coke used Magna Carta extensively in the early 17th century, arguing against the divine right of kings. A while later, King James I and his son King Charles I, attempted to suppress the discussion of the Magna Carta.

The Glorious Revolution

The political myth of the Magna Carta and its protection of ancient personal liberties persisted after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until well into the 19th century.

It influenced the early American colonists in the Thirteen Colonies and the formation of the United States Constitution, which became the supreme law of the land in the new republic of the United States.

Research by Victorian historians showed that the original 1215 charter concerned the medieval relationship between the Monarch and the barons rather than the rights of ordinary people. Still, the Charter remained a powerful, iconic document, even after almost all of its content was canceled from the statute books in the 19th and 20th centuries by Parliament, which had and still has no authority to repeal the Great Charter without a mandate from the common people it represents.

So, Parliament has recently acted like King John by repealing clauses without authorization. That is TREASON. Parliament is NOT a dictatorship. No one is above the Constitution.

Still, none of the original 1215 Magna Carta is in force as it was repealed. However, four clauses of the original Charter (1 (part), 13, 39, and 40) are enshrined in the 1297 reissued Magna Carta and remain in force in England and Wales (as clauses 1, 9, and 29 of the 1297 statute).

Magna Carta: A Symbol of Liberty

Magna Carta is the symbol of LIBERTY, often cited by politicians and campaigners, and is held in great respect by the British and American legal communities. Lord Denning described it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times—the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

In the 21st century, four exemplifications of the original 1215 charter remain in existence, two at the British Library, one at Lincoln Castle, and one at Salisbury Cathedral. There are also a handful of the subsequent charters in public and private ownership, including copies of the 1297 charter in both the United States of America and Australia. Although scholars refer to the 63 numbered “clauses” of the Magna Carta, this is a modern numbering system introduced by Sir William Blackstone in 1759. The original Charter formed a single, long, unbroken text, part of which is reproduced below:

Magna Carta in the British Library

The four original 1215 charters were displayed together at the British Library for one day, on February 3, 2015, to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.

The Original Magna Carta Libertatum

The original Magna Carta Libertatum is one of the most famous documents in the world:

Original Magna Carta Libertatum
John Pine's 1733 engraving of the Magna Carta

Engraved facsimile of the original text of the Magna Carta, surrounded by a series of 25 coats of hand-colored arms of the Barons, panel at foot containing notes and a representation (hand-colored) of the remains of King John’s Great Seal, all panels surrounded by oak leaf and acorn borders. Date circa 1733. Source Bonhams. Author John Pine (1690-1756), publisher

Magna Carta has inspired people, from Thomas Jefferson to Mahatma Gandhi, over the centuries.

As was mentioned previously, in 1215, the ruler of England was a despot called King John, 151 years after the Normans invaded England in 1066, under invader William I. King John is regarded by historians as perhaps the worst King in recent English history:

  • He imprisoned his former wife. King John starved his opponents.
  • He allegedly murdered his nephew.
  • The King imposed an eye-watering tax on his barons to fund his inane foreign wars.
  • Barons who refused to pay the tax had their assets seized.

That, not surprisingly, caused an UPROAR. King John was a dictator. Under his feudal rule, the barons got a bit pissed off by his heavy-handedness. So, they banded together and DEMANDED that he, King John, OBEY THE LAW.

But the dictator REFUSED.

So, the barons CAPTURED London, the dictator’s stronghold.

On the back foot, King John was FORCED to negotiate with the barons at Runnymede in Kent in June 1215. The result of the stressful ‘negotiations’ was WRITTEN in a document called the MAGNA CARTA or GRAND CHARTER – the FIRST document to be put into writing the principle that the King and his assistants were NOT above the law.

Although most of the Charter’s clauses dealt with medieval rights and customs, the document is a powerful symbol of global LIBERTY.

The Charter’s most crucial clause, which is part of today’s law in Britain, says:

“ALL subjects have the RIGHT to JUSTICE and a FAIR trial if accused of wrongdoing.”

No man shall be arrested or imprisoned except by the judgment of their EQUALS and the law of the land. To no one will anyone sell, deny or delay right or justice.

What is a ‘free man’?

In 1215, most people were peasants or serfs controlled by landowners (barons). Most landowners were fair; otherwise, revolts would have happened.

Think of landowners as today’s EMPLOYERS. The peasants received payment for work done. They were happy as there were no taxes or deductions on their earnings.

However, King John could not just resign, disappear into the sunset, and enjoy a blissful retirement. Instead, he and his rebellious barons were plunged into CIVIL WAR after the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, declared the Magna Carta INVALID!

One year after signing the Great Charter, King John died of dysentery.

So, in 1216, the 9-year-old Henry III was coronated. He was ORDERED by the barons to KEEP THE PEACE. He did that, to his credit, and Magna Carta was reissued several times during the 13th century.

So, the GREAT CHARTER became part of English law.

No Parliament has the legal right to change it today because it represents Britain’s constitution, no matter who says what. No court, supreme or otherwise, has the authority to override the Great Charter.

It is now 2023, 808 years since the Magna Carta was signed. The Great Charter is today echoed in the United States Declaration of Independence. In addition, it is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Magna Carta’s most important legacy is that everyone – including governments – MUST OBEY the law. What began as a signed document by King John addressing serious complaints from his barons is now an international symbol of LIBERTY. Without this CRUCIAL document, there would be NO freedom today anywhere in the world.

That is the Great Charter’s legacy.

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