Friday, 21 June 2013

The Magna Carta

Two days ago (19th June) marked 798 years since the Magna Carta, the basis for many constitutions throughout the world (including the USA), was signed by King John. In honour I have decided to do a short post about it. Enjoy!

Much of King Richard, the Lionheart's reign (6 July 1189 to 6 April 1199) was spent fighting abroad in the Middle East and France. To pay for these wars King Richard had taxed England heavily. After his death in 1199 his brother, John continued these battles, however with less success. King John kept demanding more taxes from the nobility in England who were expected to pay as much tax as was asked from them. 

In 1209, John had been excommunicated in a dispute over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He used this as an excuse to confiscate church property and sell it back to his bishops at a profit. Part of the money raised by these exactions was used to create a fledgling English Navy. John used this to invade Ireland in 1210, and on 30 May 1213, the Earl of Salisbury destroyed a French armada poised to invade the British Isles at Damme.

The Barons became very unhappy about John exploiting their loyalty and belief in his complete power and on the 3rd May 1215 they rebelled, took over London and forced John to negotiate. On the 19th June 1215 at Runnymede King John signed the Magna Carta (meaning the Great Charter).

It was the first formal document stating that a King had to follow the laws of the land and it guaranteed the rights of individuals against the wishes of the King; people couldn't be arrested, imprisoned or have their possessions taken away except by the judgement of their equals and/or the law of the land.
The Magna Carta established the principle that the people of England, at this stage represented by the Barons, could limit the power of a King - before the Magna Carta, widows and daughters of Barons could be sold by the King in marriage in order to make money.

Of the 63 clauses of the Magna Carta only 3 are still in use. The three include a defence of the rights of the English church, the liberties and customs of London and the right to a fair trial and only being arrested for a just cause.

The Magna Carta was authenticated by a royal seal rather than a signature - there is no evidence that King John could write at all. The Magna Carta was not actually written on the day but written at a later date by scribes working in the Royal Chancery, who used very small writing and abbreviated words to save space because parchment was so expensive! The scribes made many copies of the Magna Carta which were sent across England but only four have survived.