Magna Carta - the later constitutional significance

Essay, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 56 %


Liberty means responsibility.

That is why most men dread it.

George Bernard Shaw

England is rightfully seen as the birthplace of parliamentarinism, which reaches back to the Magna Carta. Even the Anglo Saxon period knew an early form of parliament, the “witenagemont”[1]. This was the council of the elders and it did not end with the invasion by William the Conqueror – instead a council[2] of the crown vassals was introduced, but with roots in the “witenagemont”. William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in 1066 and his reign marks the end of several invasions, which had begun since 450 AD. After the Roman withdrawal from the British Isles the resulting power vacuum encouraged invaders from the continent. The Romano-British neither had the weapons nor the army to make use of the Roman military structures and fell back on their traditional hill forts but were ultimately unable to stop the German advances. The Anglo-Saxons and Danes founded several kingdoms in England. They were predominantly peasants and forest dwellers and fortified their villages and towns with earthen banks and timber palisades and constructed massive earthworks along the borders of their Kingdoms.

To return to the Normans, the Norman castle was not just a new form of military architecture; it was the product of a complex military society that had been created in Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries AD. The feudal system was an acknowledgement of the difficulty of running and defending a large country without a well-developed administrative system, without efficient communication, and without a standing army. In theory at least, all land belonged[3] to the King and was held as a fee or payment from him in return for various political, administrative and military services. He introduced a kind of royal administration and the“Curia Regis”, which ceased to function in 1268.[4] The King kept the traditional shires but changed the person in control to a sheriff. In broad terms the system worked like this: the King retained a large section of the country under his own direct control; the rest was parcelled among his barons in return for agreed services to the Crown. Castles were an integral and essential part of the feudal system. Without a castle no baron could exercise the power placed in his hands by the King. The castle was the local base, providing law enforcement, justice, defence, and all the functions that in another system would be provided by the central government. As can be imagined, the system was wide open to abuse.

Many of the great barons behaved at times like independent princes and carried on feuds against each other, extending their land and power. In 1100 Henry I sealed the “Charta of Liberties”[5]. This was the first time that the King had to give some power to the aristocracy, but it is obvious that the feudal system in England would never have allowed a despotic reign of the monarch. Doeckers characterizes the development of England as a “restriction of the regal power and force of decisions”.[6] The established council was for the noblemen and the clergy only and commoners had no access. At Runnymede, on 15 June 1215, King John of England sealed the Magna Carta in which he conceded a number of legal rights to his barons and to the people. He acknowledged the now firmly embedded concept that no man - not even the king - is above the law. That was a milestone in constitutional thought for the 13th century and for centuries to come. In order to finance his foreign wars, King John had taxed abusively. The cost of hiring a mercenary had risen from 8 pennies per day in his father's times to twenty-four pence.[7] His barons threatened the King with a rebellion and coerced him into granting rudimentary judicial guarantees such as the freedom of the church, fair taxation, controls over imprisonment and the right of all merchants to come and go freely, except in time of war. The Magna Carta had 61 clauses, the most important of which may have been number 39: " No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or dieseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land".[8] It was the first time that a King had accepted that even he himself could be compelled to observe a law or that the barons were allowed to "distain and distress him in every possible way" - just short of a legal right to rebellion. Once the document had been sealed, letters were sent to all sheriffs ordering them to read the Charter aloud in public.[9] It can only be seen as a restriction of the powers of the King in the 13th century, as the cities arose from the “shell of Anglo-Norman feudalism”[10] but was originally intended to bring about a peace settlement between the king and his rebellious barons rather than a timeless declaration of the rights of the individual against the state.[11]

Only when the Magna Carta was made official did the English aristocracy become more self-confident. In 1258 the nobility revolted. They were angry at the cost of some of the King’s projects, such as the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey and a proposed campaign to make one of his younger sons King of Sicily. The Provisions of Oxford[12] (1258) - imposed on Henry III by his barons - established a permanent baronial council of 12 nobles that took control of certain key appointments. The highest administrative bodies were to change annually. The leader of the baronial movement was Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester. In 1259 the Provisions of Westminster reformed the common law. When Henry III eventually renounced both sets of provisions and challenged the barons, civil war broke out in 1264, initially going well for Simon de Montfort, who had ideas of a constitutional[13] monarchy. During the conflict he sought to boost the baronial support by summoning knights of the shires and burgesses to attend “his” parliament. De Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham[14] in 1265, but his innovation of summoning commoners to attend parliamentary meetings was repeated in later years and soon became standard. Westminster Hall[15] was also the site of the first true English parliament in 1265 to include elected representatives. However, knights and commoners were only allowed to say something when they were asked. The Magnum Consilium was divided into three parts: the permanent council had the sworn members of the government, the peerage was the part of the crown vassals and the last part was the house of commons made up of the commoners and the knights. At that time there was no separation of the legislative and the judicative powers. Law, statute law and ordinances were all together.[16] In the parliament of 1264, all three estates were represented. But when the clergy moved out in 1322, the commoners and the knights came to similar positions. Money was always the lever to get more rights from the King. The approach ended with the election of a Speaker, who was elected for the first time in 1376. The granting of political rights resulted from the prosperity of the cities, which played a major part in financing the budget. Especially London developed into the greatest port in the 13th century. But the presence of representatives of towns was unthinkable at that time.[17]


[1] (21.02.2003)

[2] This was the Magnum Concilium.

[3] Kurt Kluxen, Geschichte Englands (Stuttgart: Kroener Verlag, 1991), 40.

[4] (19.02.2003)

[5] (24.02.2003)

[6] Günther Doecker, Das politische System Großbritanniens (Berlin: unknown publisher,1982), 6.

[7] (24.02.2003)

[8] (19.02.2003)

[9] This process would have enormous influence on the American colonies many years later.

[10] Kurt Kluxen, Geschichte Englands, 138.

[11] (24.02.2003)

[12] (19.02.2003)

[13] Heinrich Händel et al, Großbritannien (München : Beck´sche Reihe, 1994), 34.

[14] (24.02.2003)

[15] (23.1.2003)

[16] Kurt Kluxen, Geschichte Englands, 121.

[17] Daniel Waley, Later Medieval Europe from St. Louis to Luther (London: Longman, 1985), 12.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Magna Carta - the later constitutional significance
University of Wales, Aberystwyth  (Department of History)
HIH. 3126: Magna Carta
56 %
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Magna, Carta
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Michael Gärtner (Author), 2003, Magna Carta - the later constitutional significance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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