The Great Charter of Liberties or ‘Magna Carta’ agreed between King John and his barons at Runnymede near Windsor in 1215 is one of the most famous documents in history. It is considered the foundation of English common law and much of its worldwide importance lies in the interpretation of the clauses from which grew the right of the freedom of the individual.
‘No free man shall be arrested, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or in any way victimised, or attacked except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land’
Use the time line above to explore the history and significance of Hereford's Magna Carta.
On his accession in 1199 King John inherited a huge kingdom covering England, Ireland, parts of Scotland and lands in France stretching from the Channel to the Pyrenees but also considerable financial liability as a result of the expenditure on crusades and French wars of his father Henry II and brother Richard I. His reign was characterised by unprecedented taxation demands, harsh and arbitrary treatment of opponents and supporters alike and disastrous wars resulting in the loss of most of the French lands. This all gradually disaffected his most powerful barons who threatened open revolt.
John had also alienated the church by refusing to accept the Pope’s nominee, Stephen Langton, as Archbishop of Canterbury resulting in the country enduring papal sanction for 4 years. As tension both at home and abroad increased John attempted to remedy the situation by accepting Langton as Archbishop in 1213, restoring confiscated lands to the church and also agreeing that England and Ireland be papal fiefdoms. By doing this John made himself a vassal, with the pope as his overlord. No English king had ever done such a thing, and it was deeply resented. This did little to appease the rebel barons and matters came to a head in 1215 with Stephen Langton assuming the role of chief mediator between the king and the rebels.
In January 1215 a party of barons, fully armed, met with John demanding that he agree to a charter confirming the ancient liberties of the kingdom. John asked for time to consider but failed to meet or negotiate as agreed. Losing patience the barons were provoked into renouncing their obedience to the king and open military action seizing control of London in May. This was decisive in forcing John to agree to meet with the barons in June at Runnymede, near Windsor, to restore peace.
The Charter of Liberties known as Magna Carta, agreed between King John and his barons on 15 June at Runnymede followed the custom of previous English monarchs in confirming existing liberties and privileges of his subjects but went much further in including terms that attacked or curtailed the king’s sovereignty. Additionally John agreed to the creation of a council of twenty five to ensure the enforcement of the terms of the charter effectively overriding his own authority.
Hereford Cathedral possesses the only known surviving original of a writ sent out by King John from Runnymede in June 1215 to the sheriff and other royal officials in each county informing his subjects of the peace made and terms of Magna Carta. John declares that
'through God’s grace a firm peace has been re-established between us and the barons and freemen of our kingdom, as you may hear and see through our charter which we have caused to be made concerning it, and which we have also ordered to be read out publicly throughout your jurisdiction and to be firmly kept'.
Each county was also elect twelve knights to inquire into the evil customs of the sheriffs and other officials as required by the charter.
Far from achieving peace neither party seemed fully committed to abiding by the terms of Magna Carta. King John appealed to his overlord, Pope Innocent III, who cancelled the charter in August 1215 declaring it ‘as unlawful and unjust as it is base and shameful’ and so only a few weeks after it was agreed at Runnymede Magna Carta was a dead letter.
Armed conflict was renewed and the barons invited Louis, son of the French king, to give military support and make claim to the English throne. A year of civil war followed fought throughout England. King John died unexpectedly on 19 October 1216 in Newark leaving his nine-year-old son, Henry, as his successor. John’s remains were taken to Worcester Cathedral for burial near the shrine of St Wulfstan.
On his accession Henry III’s position as a minor was very vulnerable. He had only a handful of powerful supporters left from his father’s court and until he came of age he would have to govern through regents. The rebel barons and the French had over half the country under their control. It was feared that since the rightful coronation church, Westminster Abbey, was in rebel-held London the barons might crown Louis as King of England. So Henry was hastily crowned in Gloucester on 28 October 1216.
Two weeks later as a political expedient and in the hope of attracting more supporters or averting civil war, Magna Carta was reissued in a significantly reduced form. The new charter omitted more than 25 of the 63 clauses contained in John’s charter converting it to a more moderate document dealing mainly with feudal and legal regulation.
Conflict continued and Henry III’s government not only survived but enjoyed military and naval successes defeating the rebel barons and driving out Louis and the French forces. A peace treaty was agreed in September 1217 which declared a general amnesty.
As one of the first acts of the new settled government the 1216 Magna Carta was reissued with further revisions particularly effecting the regulation of county courts and assizes and the power and conduct of the sheriff. A separate Charter of the Forest was also issued. This regulated forest rights and law incorporating and expanding on several clauses from the 1215 Magna Carta. These charters were issued through Henry’s regents, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Guala, the papal legate. In 1225 when Henry came of age he issued Magna Carta again ‘of his own free will' under the King’s Great Seal. It contained minor changes and an enlarged final clause which guaranteed its terms. From this time Magna Carta gained a special significance and importance as a guarantee of the monarch's conduct and communal liberty. Therefore at times of heightened political tension, as in 1235, 1253 and 1265, the king would confirm or reissue Magna Carta as an expression of good intent.
Hereford Cathedral possesses the finest of only four surviving exemplars of the 1217 Magna Carta. This revision of 1217/1225 is arguably just as significant as John's 1215 charter in that it remained materially unchanged through various reissues and confirmations until its final confirmation under Edward I in 1300.
Most of the terms of Magna Carta were designed to protect the customary rights of free subjects from the king, although those clauses relating to the regulation of trade, the standardisation of weights and measures and the liberties of the Church had a wider application. Under the feudal system of the thirteenth century the majority of the population was not free, so Magna Carta had little direct significance for ‘the common people’. In subsequent decades a series of legal judgements broadened the interpretation of the rights and freedoms expressed in Magna Carta so that ordinary people were increasingly protected and given access to impartial justice. It is clear that as early as the 1220s the idea of a charter of liberties which embodied communal rights against the sovereign had taken root and the king was repeatedly required to swear to uphold the terms of Magna Carta.
A selection of the clauses in Magna Carta:
The Church in England shall be free and all her rights and liberties inviolate.
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions or outlawed or exiled or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we condemn him but by lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
No one shall be denied or delayed the right of justice.
Liberties and customs of the city of London, Cinque Ports and all other Boroughs, Cities and Ports confirmed.
All fish weirs are to be removed from throughout the whole of England except on the sea coast.
Assize, county and hundred courts regulated.
Standard measures for wine, ale and corn and widths of cloth set.
Feudal laws relating to service, inheritance, wardship and rights of widows defined.
In 1297 during another period of tension between king and subject over taxation demands, King Edward I confirmed the 1217/1225 Magna Carta of his father, Henry III, and made a further general confirmation and guarantee of charters in 1300 including an issue of copies of Magna Carta which were sent throughout the country, the final time this occurred. The 1297 confirmation of Magna Carta was for the first time copied or enrolled in the Statute Rolls kept by the king’s chancery and so became enshrined in the written law of England.
During the reign of Charles I when the people were once again in deep conflict with their sovereign, Sir Edward Coke, a former Chief Justice and leading member of the parliamentary opposition, initiated the Petition Of Right in 1628. This is regarded as one of the most important British constitutional documents. It was a statement of civil liberties invoking the principles of Magna Carta which was sent by Parliament to Charles I and conceded by him in return for a grant of taxation. The importance of the 'rights' of the individual gained increasing support and significance throughout the political upheavals of the 17th century resulting in two important Acts of Parliament: The Habeas Corpus Act, 1679, which strengthened the protection of the individual from unlawful detention; and the Bill of Rights, 1689, guaranteeing the accession of King William and Queen Mary and setting out the civil and political rights of the people.
Magna Carta and the principles of liberty were transported to America from the early 17th century where the ‘rights and liberties of Englishmen’ were guaranteed in the foundation charters of many of the new colonies including Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia. These liberties harking back to Magna Carta were considered fundamental by the founders of the new America and were incorporated in the American Bill of Rights embodied in the Constitution of the United States of America.
What began as a peace treaty brokered between a king and his most powerful subjects on a water meadow beside the Thames has become an iconic symbol of liberty, justice and freedom of the individual celebrated throughout the world. The name and ideal of Magna Carta was frequently used wherever people felt oppressed by their government and continued to feed the principle of individual freedom. This culminated in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948 followed shortly after by the European Convention on Human Rights which set up the European Court of Human Rights. The court is open to all who feel their rights have been violated in any way by the state. In 2000 the British Human Rights Act made the European Convention on Human Rights enforceable in UK courts. Over the past one hundred and fifty years of reform and rationalisation of English law only three and a half of the clauses in Magna Carta remain in force yet it is what Magna Carta represents that still has power to inspire today.
The Hereford Magna Carta is occasionally on display in the Mappa Mundi and Chained Library Exhibition. In 2023, the Magna Carta will be on display on Friday 24 & Saturday 25 November, 10am - 5pm.
Magna Carta is known as the first charter to limit the power of the king and to uphold the rights of the individual.
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