The 15th June is a significant date in the judicial history of the United Kingdom. It marks the day King John issued the Magna Carta, which translates as ‘The Great Charter’ as a solution to political problems he faced in 1215.
The Magna Carta is one of the most famous documents in the world and introduced the principle that everybody, the King included, was subject to the law. Although almost a third of the text has been lost or rewritten over the centuries, the Magna Carta remains the cornerstone of the British constitution.
The Magna Carta featured 63 clauses granted by the King which dealt with specific items relating to his rule as King. A number of these often challenged the King’s autocracy, and in the years that followed, proved to be highly adaptable. The most famous of these clauses is the 39th, which states that “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
However, the “free man” was a minority in medieval England, with the majority made up of unfree peasants, referred to as “villeins”, who had to consult the courts of their own lords in a search for justice.
The Magna Carta’s original purpose was to serve as a peace treaty between the King and opposing Rebel Barons which sadly failed, however it served as the foundations of the relationship between the King and his subjects. Historians are unsure how many copies of the 1215 Magna Carta were produced, but it is known that four still exist today – one is held at Lincoln Cathedral, another at Salisbury Cathedral, and two at the British Library.
10 years later, Henry III reissued the Magna Carta in return for a tax granted to him by his kingdom, built on the original core values and became the definitive version of The Magna Carta as we know it today.
The majority of The Magna Carta dealt with the distribution of land, ensuring the justice system was maintained and medieval taxes, which are a far cry from the taxes we know today. The Magna Carta stated that taxes could not be demanded without “the general consent of the realm”, which referred to the leading barons and churchmen. It also reintroduced privileges which had been lost in previous years, and tied subjective fines to offenses so they weren’t detrimental to the accused’s livelihood. It also stated that a widow would not be forced to remarry against her wishes.
The Magna Carta effectively died with King John in the heat of a civil war between John and his barons, who had invited Prince Louis of France to seize the throne. In November 1216, a reissued Magna Carta was produced in John’s successor, Henry III’s name, with another version being released in the following year, once the French had been expelled from England. At the age of 18, Henry III released a greatly revised version of the Magna Carta, enrolled on a statute book by King Edward I in 1297.
Some of the core principles contained within The Magna Carta are still present today over 800 years later, in documents including the 1971 United States Bill of Rights, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. However, only three of these clauses remain present in English law today.