Magna Carta Explained

The original Magna Carta, which is the version most people are familiar  with, has a preamble and 63 clauses.  The first group says that the church is free to appoint its  own officials.  The second  group affirmed feudal law relating to lands held by the king.   The third affirmed rights of subtenants.  The fourth had to do with towns and merchants.   The fifth affirmed points of law and justice.   The sixth related to government officials.   The seventh was about royal forests.   The eighth aimed to resolve current disputes, including the firing  of certain royal officials.  The  ninth provided assurances that the king would honor the terms of the  charter.

      In other words, Magna Carta addressed specific grievances of its day.   There isn’t any statement of fundamental principles such as were  expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence or the French  Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

      As historian Samuel Thorne observed, "The document looks very much  like answers given by many persons to the questions, 'What is being done  wrong?'  'What practices should be halted?'  'What improvements  in administration should be adopted?'"  England's barons didn't  rebel against King John to secure Magna Carta.  They rebelled because  they wanted to stop him from dragging them into another costly European  war.  Magna Carta was what they demanded after his defeat.

      For future generations, the most important single clause was #39 which  affirmed the right to trial by jury: “No 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 proceed  with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful  judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”    In addition, clause #40 declared, “To no one will we sell, to no  one deny or delay right or justice.”

      Clause #14 provided a starting definition for Parliament: “To obtain the  general consent of the realm for the assessment of an ‘aid’ – except  in the three cases specified above – or a ‘scutage,’ we will cause  the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons to be summoned  individually by letter.  To  those who hold lands directly of us we will cause a general summons to be  issued, through the sheriffs and other officials, to come together on a  fixed day (of which at least 40 days notice shall be given) and at a fixed  place.  In all letters of  summons, the cause of the summons will be stated.   When a summons has been issued, the business appointed for the day  shall go forward in accordance with the resolution of those present, even  if not all those who were summoned have appeared.”

      According to constitutional historian F.W. Maitland, “During the period  which ends with the charter we have little evidence as to the constitution  of the national assembly.  The earliest writ of summons that we have is one addressed to the Bishop of  Salisbury in 1205; of general summonses sent out through the sheriffs we  have none preserved; but very possibly throughout the reign of Henry the  Second the assembly had been constituted after the fashion prescribed by  the charter.”  Maitland  added: “It is not very clear that in theory the consent of the national  council had been necessary for taxation or that it had been in fact  granted.”
Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) objected to Magna Carta because of its  provision that English authorities and not the Pope would appoint Church  officials in England.  He called Magna Carta a "shameful and  demeaning agreement, forced upon the king by violence and fear...we  utterly reject and condemn this settlement, and under threat of excommunication order that the king not dare to observe it nor the barons  require it to be observed.  The charter, we hereby declare to be a  nullity, void of all validity forever."  In early 1216 King John repudiated Magna Carta.