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Articles & Text of the Charter - Preamble & Articles


*   Preface

*   The New King

*   The Struggle with France

*   John and the Church

*   Background of the Baronial Revolt

*   The Crisis and the Charter

*      Significance of the Charter


            History of the Charter - Preface  

 The following translation of Magna Carta was made for the use of my pupils and is here published in response to a suggestion that it may be of use to others. The Charter bristles with technical legal terms and its Latin is often ambiguous since the language of the day had failed to keep pace with the growing richness and complexity of English life after the Conquest; not infrequently a word has a general sense and one or more particular ones, only the context showing which is being employed. My principle aim has been to provide an English version which shall be easily intelligible to the general reader. For this reason I have largely abandoned English legal terms which tend to be as meaningless to the modern student as the original Latin ones. Considerations of space have severely limited the number of footnotes and made it necessary to make the translation as nearly as possible self-explanatory. For help on points of detail I am indebted to Mr. C. Johnson, Mr. E. Miller, Mr. F.J. West and Professor J.G. Edwards. 



            Introduction - The New King  

            On Friday, 26 March 1199, King Richard of England was besieging the castle of Chalus not far from Limoges. In the afternoon he started a tour of inspection of the walls, unarmed save for a helmet and shield. Understandably the King excited the attention of a daring defender, a cross bowman who had been firing most of the day using a frying pan as his sole means of defence. His bolt hit Richard, glancing off his left shoulder into his side. The wound festered and on Tuesday, 6 April the King died. He left behind him a great mass of possessions (notably England, Ireland, Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine) and also a difficult succession question. The rule of the succession to the throne was not yet fixed or uniform in Western Europe, but the two obvious candidates were Arthur of Brittany (the son of Henry II's third son Geoffrey) and John (the forth and youngest son of Henry II). Arthur, however, was only twelve years old when Richard died and the barons of Normandy and Aquitaine were solidly in favor of John. Richard had probably considered John his heir and in the event he was quickly recognized in almost all the lands of the late King.  The task to which he succeeded was a heavy one. In an age when communications were slow, dangerous and expensive and the civil service only rudimentary, it was no easy thing to hold together the great miscellany of lands which constituted the Angevin empire. The problem had been made more difficult of late by a rapid rise in prices which had greatly increased the expenses of the Crown without proportionately raising its revenues, and by the obvious intention of the new French King -- the astute Philip Augustus (1180-1226) to attack John's French possessions. In England the steadily growing effectiveness of the royal government, particularly notable under Henry II and Richard I, had for some time caused discontent among an often turbulent baronage, who, in their day, felt that the power of the Crown "has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished."  Although historians are by no means agreed about the new King's character it is clear that he lacked many of the qualities necessary in this difficult and delicate situation. Like most of his family he had an undisciplined nature, and was prone to furious outbursts of temper which, at times, verged on the maniacal. His perpetual, morbid suspicions of even his closest followers at least hint at mental instability as does that streak of cruelty in his character which shocked even a rough age. He had none of the military capacity which had made Richard I so popular and he was almost untouched by the religious idealism which permeated so much of contemporary life-" at the best his attitude towards the Church and its clergy was coldly practical, at the worst it was almost insanely ferocious", writes a modern historian.1 But John, though unstable, was by no means devoid of ability. He was genuinely interested in governmental problems and brought to them a fresh and ingenious mind, whilst he could show considerable skill in a crisis. Our concern here with the trouble that culminated in the great revolt must but blind us to less controversial aspects of his reign. A modern authority has claimed that "no medieval king before or since his time dealt more successfully with the Welsh, the Scots or the Irish" and that "it was largely to the King's personal interest and activity in judicial matters that the great development of English law during this period was due."2 The complicated details of his reign cannot be here considered, but it is essential to notice briefly the major problems with which he was faced. 

1 S. Painter, The Reign of King John, 152

2 A. L. Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 426, 429 



            The Struggle with France  


            At the opening of his reign Philip Augustus had direct control of only a very small part of France, incomparably the most important barrier to his effective rule of the country being the great Angevin Empire of Henry II which stretched from the Pyrenees almost to the Somme. The military ability of Richard I and other circumstances had delayed any effective French attack on this, but now the time for it was ripe. It was problem to be solved by force and John, unfortunately, lacked his brother's interest in military matters.


      On Richard's death Philip backed the barons of Anjou who had declared in favor of Arthur of Brittany. But trouble with the Pope handicapped the King and he soon recognized John's title in return for some small but valuable pieces of territory and a large sum of money. At this point the English King, whose undue interest in the fair sex was to become only too obvious, put himself seriously in the wrong by marrying Isabel of Angouleme, an heiress who was already betrothed to one of his vassals. This was a gross breach of feudal law and Isabel's affianced appealed to the court of the king of France for redress. John refused to appear for trial and was condemned to forfeit all his French lands.  The inevitable war began in May 1202, with the French King aiming to capture Normandy and to replace John by Arthur in the other continental lands of the Anglo-Norman Empire. By a brilliant stroke John captured Arthur and a number of his supporters. But he never held the confidence of his continental barons and steadily lost ground, notably through the cruelty he showed to his foes culminating in April 1203 in the murder of Arthur, a deed probably done by the King himself in a fit of drunken fury. Baronial support in France rapidly drained away and Arthur's death led to a revolt in Brittany. The lands round the Loire were quickly lost and Philip launched a heavy attack on the great Duchy of Normandy. Richard I had foreseen such a move and made elaborate preparations for defence. The situation was far from hopeless. But John moved aimlessly around, showing neither ability nor determination, and thus rapidly forfeited the support of the local barons, who could scarcely be expected to help a King who would not help himself. With the capture of the mighty fortress of Chateau Gaillard on 18 March 1204, after a six months' siege, effective resistance ended and all the Norman inheritance save the Channel Isles passed to the King of France. John had no intention of leaving Philip in undisturbed possession, but for some years serious internal problems prevented any effective action. The loss of Normandy was perhaps the major catastrophe of John's reign. Financially it meant the loss of important resources and the need for considerable extra revenues, if the lost ground was to be recovered. Psychologically, its revelation of John's military incapacity further embittered his sensitive, brooding nature.



            John and The Church


            Soon after the Norman fiasco the king became seriously embroiled with the ecclesiastical authorities. The trouble began over the election of a new Archbishop of Canterbury to succeed Hubert Walter, who died on 13 July 1205. It had long been generally accepted that the King of England should have a major part in the appointment of English bishops, but he was expected to choose reasonably suitable candidates and to respect the canon law of the Church in the process of election. Unfortunately those concerned in the election, rightly or wrongly, did not trust a King who showed few signs of religious interests" apart from the giving of comparatively small sums in alms one can find no evidence of any acts of piety on John's part," writes Professor Painter. The election problem was further complicated by the old dispute between the monks of Canterbury and the bishops of the southern province as to whether the latter were entitled to take part in the election of a new archbishop.


            On Hubert's death, the bishops sent a delegation to Rome to plead their cause. 

Hurriedly the monks of Canterbury elected one of their number, Reginald, as archbishop upon rather obscure conditions, and sent him with a delegation to Rome to state their case. This precipitate action was illegal, since royal permission to proceed to an election had not been secured. The King, in fury, forced the monks and bishops to elect his nominee John de Gray, bishop of Norwich, and to withdraw their appeals to the Pope. Pope Innocent III, himself a lawyer investigated the tangle carefully with the aid of new delegations summoned from England and settled the minor issue by a judgment that the southern bishops had no right to participate in election. Neither John nor the monks would withdraw their candidates for the see. Innocent declared that both had been in validly elected and got the Canterbury monks to choose as archbishop Stephen Langton, an eminent English scholar then studying abroad. Though Stephen was an admirable choice, Innocent's complete disregard of the customary right of the English Crown to have a voice in important elections of this kind would have infuriated less choleric kings than John, and might well stand as a formidable precedent on future occasions. Then, as ever, Church and State could not live happily together without a mutual understanding which at this time was clearly lacking.


            John inevitably refused to recognize Stephen as archbishop. He expelled the Canterbury monks from the country and took over their estates; English benefices held by Italians were seized and papal delegates forbidden to hear cases in England. Innocent threatened to put England under an interdict, and, when various fruitless negotiations broke down the interdict was published (23 March 1208). With a few necessary exceptions this aimed at stopping public worship in England; parish churches were to be closed and the administration of the sacraments largely suspended. It is unfortunately by no means clear as to how far this state of things prevailed in practice and it is likely that fear of royal wrath mitigated the extreme demands of canon law. At this stage the King showed commendable moderation; although he seized the property of all ecclesiastics who supported the Pope, nearly all of it was evidently returned on payment of a fine.


            The Pope could not let the situation drift. After further unsuccessful negotiations Innocent put into operation his threatened excommunication of the King (November 1209). This was a much more serious matter as the faithful were, in effect, obliged to treat John as an outcast from the Church, and as far as possible had to avoid contact with him. By the end of the year almost all the bishops had deserted the King, apart from two who were his close friends. The King used the situation to relieve his serious financial situation. Enormous sums were extorted from churches and monasteries and when bishoprics fell vacant they were left empty, in the ancient manner, so that the King could pocket their surplus revenue. Neither side wanted to prolong the struggle but neither would give way. By 1212, however, the papal position had improved. John was becoming increasingly unpopular at home, there was considerable unrest in Scotland and Wales, and the Pope was in alliance with the powerful King of France. The King decided to break up this formidable opposition by coming to terms with the Pope, and, lane in 1212, he sent an embassy to Rome. Before his envoys arrived the Pope either deposed John and called on the King of France to take over his lands or threatened to do so, but withdrew the sentence when he learnt of the King's readiness to negotiate. As the King of France was threatening to invade England on his own account John gave way and on 13 May 1213 agreed to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop, to compensate the Church for his exactions and to reinstate the ecclesiastics he had expelled. Two days later John resigned his kingdoms of England and Ireland to the Pope, receiving them back as a vassal in return for promising tribute of 1,000 marks a year. The exiles returned, but, by various skillful maneuvers, John managed to avoid disgorging more than a small part of the money he had extracted from the clergy. The Pope now took John under his special protection, absolving his ecclesiastical supporters in the recent troubles and approving the election of John's nominees to some vacant bishoprics.


            By this time there were clear signs of the movement which was to culminate in the granting of the Great Charter, but before considering this it is necessary to look at the setting of this memorable struggle.



            The Background of the Baronial Revolt


            The early medieval baronage normally led a life little hampered by royal supervision, holding their own courts and raising their own taxation and their own feudal levies. But in England the Norman kings from the first established a control over local life almost unparalleled in Western Europe. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle noted, the iron hand of the Conqueror was such that "any man who was himself aught might travel over the kingdom with a bosom full of gold unmolested". This good order was maintained by the Conqueror's immediate successors, except in the short and restricted "anarchy of Stephen", and was enormously expanded under Henry II when something like an efficient, professional civil service is for the first time visible. The strength of Henry's system was strikingly manifested in the reign of Richard (1189-99) when England was largely and successfully governed by civil servants in the absence of a King who spent only a few months of his reign in this country. John does not seem to have added many new ways of extending royal power but certainly made very full use of existing ones. By no means all royal innovation were unacceptable to the baronage and some of them were necessary for the efficient development of the kingdom. But by the end of John's reign there certainly existed a profound distrust of what a chronicler terms "evil customs which the King's father and brother had created to the detriment of church and realm, together with those abuses which the King himself had added."


            In the nineteenth century it was often held that these novel extensions of royal power were primarily inspired by constitutional motives, but it is now clear that economic forces were very much more important than had been realised, a fact which, incidentally, largely exonerates John at least from the charges of avarice and extortion brought against him by a long line of critics who did not appreciate the harsh financial conditions of his time. It is now established that the latter half of the twelfth century saw a rise in national prosperity which may reasonably be compared with the much better know ones in the reigns of Elizabeth I and Victoria. The new prosperity was largely based on agriculture (though town life was also expanding) and was accompanied by a rise in prices which crested for the royal official a problem that verged on the insoluble. Crown expenditure shot up enormously, so that, for example, whereas Henry II could hire mercenary soldiers for 8d. A day John had to pay as much as 2s. Nowadays it would not be thought unreasonable for the government to raise its revenue to keep pace with the rising cost of ruling, but this was not so in Johns day, when the economics of the age were different and when any form of change was difficult because of the undue fascination which precedent exerted on the medieval mind.


            Thus an important part of John's revenue came from sources which could not be raised to meet the increased costs because they were hereditary. "John may well have felt that everyone in his realm was growing richer except himself," writes Professor Painter. At this time, also, the loss of Normandy removed a useful fount of revenue and demanded heavy additional expenditure if it was to be recovered. The heavy financial demands which John had thus to make were the more unwelcome in that they followed immediately on that expensive episode the reign of Richard I, when the King's crusading activities and the ransoming of him from captivity had led to exceptionally heavy taxation.


            The financial problem which faced John had existed on a smaller scale under his two immediate predecessors and they had developed most of the main expedients to meet it which he used. (It is always to be remembered that the condemnation of these practices in the Great Charter does not mean that they were either novel or unreasonable.) An ancient part of Crown revenue came from infractions of the Forest Law, which post- Conquest kings gradually extended to cover al large part of English soil, its severe regulations being easily broken and strictly punished. This excited so much opposition that the brief concessions of the Great Charter regarding the Forest Law were expanded into a special Charter of the Forest, issued in 1217 soon after John's death. The king's rights as feudal overlord brought him various financial perquisites which cannot be considered in detail here, though mostly detailed in the Great Charter. These were vigorously utilised by John and his officials. The rights were not all very clearly defined and his officials undoubtedly pushed their claims further than was reasonable. The Great Charter defined these rights in considerable detail and in somewhat reactionary terms. Scutage was an important source of revenue levied on tenants holding by military service. John took advantage of the lack of any detailed rule as to how often it could be raised or what was the standard rate. In his seventeen years' reign he raised eleven scutages, against eight in thirty-four years by Henry II and three in ten years by Richard; he also raised some at an increased rate, the last two scutages being at double the rate of those of his immediate predecessors. Under the new economic conditions a tax on movable property was coming to be seen as amongst the most effective ways of tapping the wealth of the community. In 1207 John levied a tax of a thirteenth on income and movable property which brought in 60,000, an enormous sum by the standards of the time, it being twice the total revenue of any of the early years of his reign. But this tax, being novel, unpopular and difficult to assess and to collect, was not imposed again. To these financial resources may be added lesser ones such as customs duties (in the arrangement of which John showed much imitative), the usual extortions from Jews (the only official moneylenders of the day), and the sums extracted from ecclesiastical bodies during the Interdict which he succeeded in retaining. 


            What influence religious feeling has on the society of an age is never easy to access, but it is certain that John offended it at a time when it was singularly unwise to do so. There is much to favour the view that the English Church influenced popular imagination more powerfully in the twelfth century than at any time before or since. The foundation of some five hundred monasteries in the hundred hears immediately preceding John's death and the building of rebuilding of the great mass of our ancient parish churches at this time are but two strong indications of the power of contemporary religious feeling, a feeling inevitably disturbed by the liturgical penalties of the Interdict, the royal spoliation of church property and the obvious indiscipline of the King's character.


            With John as with James I, it is at least arguable that ultimately the fault lay not in themselves but in their stars, that both came to the throne at a time when profound be economic and social forces had so remoulded society that some far-reaching constitutional reform was, in the nature of things, next to inevitable. Yet, this view, if we accept it, must not blind us to the importance of personal factors in at least accelerating the clash between old and new. If John and James had the misfortune to bat on a bowlers' wicket, it is true and important that their performances thereon do not suggest that they would have scored heavily under easier conditions.


            The primitive machinery of medieval times made it essential that a king should win the confidence of the mass of his baronage. The illiterate baronage of the time were incapable of plumbing deep problems of political science but had, at least, a strong sense that certain things were "not done," a sense which a wise king would treat with respect. This John failed to do and must therefore be regarded politically, as well as morally, as a bad king. He was above all things an egoist and the carefully balanced medieval society with its strong corporate sense and strict counter-poise of privilege and responsibilities had no room for egoism.


            The barons may at times have been reactionary and stupid but their final belief that their King was so thoroughly untrustworthy that he must be tied down by the complex provisions of the Great Charter they can be regarded as entirely justified. It was similar distrust of royal intentions which underlay the ecclesiastical opposition to John over the Canterbury election, and it was distrust on an unparalleled scale which inspired what has been called "the extraordinary combination which formed in the winter and spring of 1215,". John’s suspicion tended to reach almost pathological proportions extending even to mercenary captains completely dependent on his favour. No baron could ever feel secure of royal favour and the inevitable result was a breakdown of the good feeling between King and barons which was essential for peace. Those who followed John without question were few and unimportant and a series of personal quarrels with the King created a small but important extremist party.


            The egoism which lay behind this untrustworthiness also let John to deeds which shocked even an un-squeamish age. His murder of Arthur and his starving to death of Matilda de Briouse and her son deepened the feeling that the King was impossible and further trouble was caused by his being, as a chronicler put it, "too covetous of pretty ladies." Most medieval kings had their brutish side, as for example Henry I of England and Philip Augustus. But these two were recognised as being essentially "just brutes," whereas John's indiscipline was such as to make it impossible for him to convince contemporaries that his cause as their cause. If naked idealism was out of place in the crude age of early kingship so also was unbridled self-indulgence, as Philip Augustus was shrewd enough to realize. How far John was personally responsible for his defects of character is not a question for the historian to answer. His peppery father and spitfire mother, and his own position as the youngest of a singularly fractious family offer special temptations to the psychologist, whether or no he accepts the unkind verdict of the contemporary who wrote of the Angevins, "from the devil they came, to the devil they go."



            The Crisis and the Charter


            From what we have seen above it is clear that the struggle which was to culminate in the granting of the Great Charter was predictable. Long before 1216 there were thunderclouds about suggesting a storm to come. By the Opening of 1203 there seems to have been a good deal of discontent which may have influenced John’s murder of Arthur, his potential rival. Because of the factors already noted the situation deteriorated as time passes.


            From 1206 John was involved in several major quarrels with various barons, which led him inter alia to carry out expeditions to Ireland and Scotland, in the course of which his intractability became more and more evident, and in 1209 there were signs of plots brewing in the north. In August 1212 he was busy organizing a great expedition against the Welsh by a large force of mercenaries, but abandoned it because of persistent and lurid rumors of the imminence of a baronial revolt. Certain barons were ordered to send hostages for their good behavior, castles were taken over and suspects hunted down. The return of Langton at this time (July 1213) was a new factor of the greatest importance, for the new Archbishop was a highly educated man of great ability and a known defender of native rights. Though he had no illusions about John's character he saw the importance of avoiding civil was by securing a comprehensive, orderly settlement. It is to him, more than to anyone else, that what so often looked like a sordid, feudal squabble culminated in the Great Charter.


            John had hoped to return to his attack on Philip as soon as he was at peace with the Church (May 1213). But when he called the host to muster at Portsmouth in July 1213, the barons refused understandably enough, since the feudal forces had already been called out once that year already as well as in the last four years. The opposition was led by a group of northern barons through whom the name of the "Northerners" came to be given to the party which opposed the King. John moved against them with his mercenaries. Langton meanwhile had held a great meeting of magnates at St. Paul's and it is possible that it was here agreed to fight for ancient liberties "if need be, even unto death." The Archbishop then hurried after the King and got him to postpone action against the Northerners. The winter John spent planning for the great attack on Philip and in February 1214 he crossed to France. But by the beginning of July his own effort had ignominiously collapsed and the defeat of the allies at Bouvines at the end of the month had effectively blasted this hope of recovering the French lands.


            His defeat proved the last straw. The barons, who had, after all, been fairly heavily taxed in what now turned out to be a lost cause, refused a fresh demand for money and at an angry meeting in January insisted on the restoration of the "ancient and accustomed liberties," threatening force if necessary. A truce until Easter was finally accepted. The older and more experienced barons, led by Langton and the wise old William Marshall, were not prepared to go to extremes, but some of the hotheads of the day proceeded to prepare for was. When the truce expired, they advanced south and formally renounced their allegiance to the King. An extremist section of the London citizens admitted them to the City, which the King had failed to lure to his side a week before by the offer of valuable privileges. The rebels sought for French aid whilst the King put foreign mercenaries into strategic castles. John seems to have offered various possessions, and on 9 May proposed that the points at issue should be submitted to the arbitration of a joint committee presided over by the Pope. The rebels, rightly or wrongly distrusting the sincerity of the King and the impartiality of the Pope, refused the offer and the king in fury ordered is officials to seize their property.


            At this juncture the situation was redeemed by the influence of the leaders of the large moderate party who had not deserted the King, despite their disapproval of much that he had done. They saw the need for a carefully balanced settlement which would satisfy much more than individual grievances and in the days that followed, led by Langton, they seem to have negotiated tirelessly to this end. After much haggling between the King at Windsor and the barons at Staines, a meeting was held in a meadow between the two places known as Runnymede on Monday 15 June 1215, and here the King sealed a draft agreement. About the 19th the Great Charter was sealed and both parties solemnly swore to accept its terms, and copies of it were quickly sent out to local centers so that it might be generally known and observed.


            No detailed analysis of the terms of the Charter is possible here, but one or two general points should be noted. As McKechnie long ago pointed out, the main feature of the document is "its solicitude to define the extent of feudal services and dues and to prevent theses being arbitrarily increased?" But other than baronial interests were by no means neglected and it should not be thought that the Charter is a mere party document. Articles such as those limiting royal exactions from tenants in chief were of real value to lower sections of society since, in some measure, the financial burdens were passed on to them by those at the top. The charter, indeed, "promised present help for present ills to all the articulate classes of the day." A highly controversial and novel feature of the Charter lay in the elaborate precautions to secure observance of the terms (including even the right to effect this by force) contained in the so-called Article 61. However understandable such an arrangement was in the circumstances of the time, it was equally certainly something for which no effective precedent could be found. 


            Rightly or wrongly, John felt no obligation to accept the Charter as permanent, and in this he quickly received valuable support from the Pope. Innocent seems to have regarded the settlement as improperly restricting John's position and as infringing papal rights of lordship over England. While negotiations for the Charter were in progress he had ordered Langton to excommunicate those opposed to the King and had suspended him from office when he refused. He now condemned the Great Charter as "not only shamefully and demeaning but also illegal and unjust." His bull was dated 24 August, but by the time news of it reached England in September civil was had broken out.


            Tempers on both sides were rising, and the Northerners, never very tractable, had become less so after Langton had departed to Rome to attend the approaching council and to plead for a more realistic attitude there. But barons much less hotheaded and anarchic than some of the Northerners might well hesitate to disarm, with so unreliable and ferocious a King as John relieved by the Pope from the need to observe the Great charter. With so much unreason on one side and so much unreliability of the other the inevitable outcome was War. The Northerners, in great need of help against royal power, called in the French, who sent large numbers of troops under Philip's son Louis and established themselves in the great city of London. The King's superior resources permitted him to carry out a series of successful punitive expeditions, but he failed to prevent a French landing. He was engaged on further operations against the recalcitrants’ when, on 10 October 1216, he fell ill following a sumptuous banquet at King's Lynn, and nine days later died at Newark Castle.


            His death revolutionized the situation. The French had never been popular and John's heir was a nine-year-old son, Henry, who could not conceivably menace the settlement granted by his father. A regency under the aged William Marshall was set up. His conciliatory policy slowly won over the moderate elements and his successful naval and military actions led to the withdrawal of Louis (September 1217) and the collapse of the opposition. William had already wisely re-issued the Great Charter albeit without some of its more radical provisions (12 November 1216). Peace having been restored, the charter was again re-issued (1217) with certain revisions and this was accompanied by a Charter of the Forest which remedied important grievances concerning royal forests.

 These issue of 1216 and 1217 had papal approval and when in 1225 the young King issued the Charter under his own seal spontanca et bona voluntate, the last possibility of official resistance to the settlement of Runnymede was removed. The text of 1225 contained a few more revisions but became the stereotyped version for later days.


            The Significance of the Charter 

           Only the ill-informed can now regard the Great Charter as important because it originally converted into a limited monarchy one which had hitherto been arbitrary and oppressive. Medieval conditions made despotism undesired in theory and impossible in practice in all but a very few exceptional areas (of which certain city states of late medieval Italy were the most important).1  The popular law of the Dark Ages knew nothing of absolute rule nor did the Church countenance it at this time. The ceremony of coronation, if it increased the prestige of kingship, also made allegiance to the ruler conditional on promises of good government therein given. These premises, inevitably short and general, might well seem inadequate when a ruler arose who violated the spirit of compromise that inspired them. Such a one was William Rufus, whose arbitrary and violent conduct may have led to his own sudden death and certainly inspired a discontent which his successor, Henry I, found it desirable to placate by the issue of a special Charter of Liberties. This Charter, significantly, was an amplified version of the premises contained in the coronation oath, and, equally significantly, provided the basis of the Great Charter, when in a much more difficult and complex age there arose another King as unregulated as Rufus. What was new, therefore, about the Great charter was certainly not the theory which lay behind it, but the very elaborate and forthright way in which that theory was given concrete form. For roughly two centuries it became the authoritative expression of the rights of the community against the Crown. As such it was seldom far from men's minds and royal confirmation of it was demanded and secured repeatedly. By the early fifteenth century many of its provisions had inevitably become antiquated and the mighty problems of the sixteenth century led men to regard royal authority as much more of a blessing than a curse; under such conditions the Great Charter was of little significance. The famous constitutional struggles of Stuart times saw the beginning of what has been termed "the myth of Magna Carta," when the Charter was re-discovered and rapturously acclaimed as "the most majestic instrument and sacrosanct anchor of English liberties" (Spelman). It is this conception which it falls to the modern historian to re-assess. 

1 "Both in practice and by definition the king could not claim absolute power. As kings the Angevins’ were bound by oath to preserve and govern according to law and custom. To the medieval thinker unbounded authority was not an attribute of kingship but of tyranny, for while the king governed according to the law, the tyrant ruled according to his will."J.C. Holt, "The Barons and the Great Charter," English Historical Review, January 1955, p. 5.


*   Articles/Text of the Charter - Preamble & Articles

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