Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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MAGNA CHARTA, the great charter which was granted by King John to the barons of England at Runnymede, A. D. 1215.


—With this great charter of personal liberty begins the true history of the English nation, for, as Lord Macaulay relates, the history of the preceding events is the history of wrongs inflicted and sustained by various tribes, which indeed dwelt on English soil, but which regarded each other with aversion such as has scarcely ever existed between communities separated by physical barriers. John having been defeated by Philip of France and driven from Normandy, the Norman nobles were compelled to make England their home. Confined by the sea with the people whom hitherto they had despised and oppressed, they at length began to regard England as their country and the English as their countrymen, and the two races so long hostile found they had common interests to unite them and common enemies to overcome. Both were oppressed by the tyranny of a wicked and despotic king, and the descendants of those who had fought under the Norman William and the Saxon Harold began to intermarry and form closer bonds of union, until the final pledge of their perfect reconciliation was the great charter framed for their common benefit and wrung from their perfidious king by their united and determined exertions.


—However circumscribed had been the liberty of the Anglo-Saxons under their ancient form of government, by the introduction of the feudal law into England by William the Conqueror, the whole people had been reduced to a state of vassalage, and their freedom so effectually suppressed, that a great part of them had been cast into a state of abject slavery. At the same time, under John, the Norman barons were compelled to submit to such absolute prerogatives of the sovereign as virtually divested them of that rank and those privileges which men of their class had always enjoyed, and which with bloody valor they had always defended. The power of the crown, long wielded with relentless force, was not easily reduced. Henry I., to aid in excluding his elder brother from the throne, had granted the people a charter in many respects favorable to the personal liberty of the subject. Stephen had renewed and Henry II. confirmed this charter. The king, however, had always ignored its provisions, and exerted the same unlimited authority over the lives and liberty of his subjects. There was a single exception to this stern authority of the sovereign. Arms still remained in the hands of the barons and people, and by combining their power in a settled and united purpose, their liberties might still be vindicated. The oppressions and insults of their rapacious king becoming no less odious to the barons than to the people, and finally enraged at his licentious exactions upon their families as well as his despotic demands upon themselves, they resolved to strike a bold and determined blow for the restoration of their privileges.


—Accordingly, immediately after the Christmas holidays in the year 1215, the barons assembled in London, and taking a copy of the charter granted by Henry I., which Langston, the archbishop of Canterbury (who favored their cause), had found in a monastery, they presented it to the king and demanded that he should grant them a renewal of Henry's charter and a confirmation of the laws of St. Edward. To gain delay, the king promised a reply to the barons' demand at the following Easter. The barons assented to this proposition and peaceably retired to their castles, which they provisioned and garrisoned. On the approach of the Easter festival they assembled a force of two thousand knights, besides innumerable retainers, and advanced to Brockley, near Oxford, the king's residence. At this point they received a message from the king, through the archbishop of Canterbury and the earl of Pembroke, demanding to be informed what those liberties were that they so zealously exacted. Through the king's messengers they presented to him a schedule of articles containing their demands. The king indignantly and imperiously rejected this petition from the barons and people. Immediately thereupon the barons elected Robert Fitz-Walter their general-in-chief, and declared war upon the king. They besieged the castle of Northampton for fifteen days; marched through the gates of Bedford castle, willingly opened by William Beauchamp, its owner; advanced to Ware and held a consultation with the chief citizens of London; and thence to London, where they received a welcome from all the people. From London they made incursions upon the king's domains, and laid waste his parks and palaces. Upon issuing their proclamation to the barons, those who had hitherto preserved a semblance of sustaining the king deserted the royal arms and openly espoused the cause they had in secret always favored. Stripped of his military strength and support, the king was finally obliged to submit to the demands of the barons whom so recently he had spurned from his presence. A conference between the king and barons was appointed at Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, a place which from this fact has become noted in history. The two parties with their retinues encamped opposite each other, as if in hostile array. After several days' discussion, the king finally signed the charter on the twelfth day of June, A. D. 1215, with great ceremony and solemnity.


—The instrument as first drawn by the barons did not contain all of the provisions which were finally embraced in the great charter. It was at first drawn in the interest of the clergy and nobility alone, and did not comprehend that of the people. By this instrument the freedom of the clergy was assured in elections, and the former charter of the king was confirmed by which the royal assent for leave to elect and confirmation of such election, was rendered unnecessary. All restraints upon appeals to Rome were removed; no one was to be prevented from leaving the kingdom at his will; and all fines imposed on the clergy, from any cause whatever, were to be in proportion to the amount of their estates and not to benefices attached to their ecclesiastical positions.


—To the barons this instrument guaranteed abatements in the rigor of the feudal law. The fine or composition known to the feudal law as a relief, which the heir of a deceased tenant paid to the lord at the death of the ancestor, for the privilege of taking up the estate which on strict feudal principles had lapsed or fallen to the lord on the death of the tenant, was established at fixed rates—a knight's at a hundred shillings; an earl's and baron's at a hundred marks, and if the heir to an estate be a minor, he should enter upon it without paying any relief, immediately upon attaining his majority. It was ordained that the king should not sell his wardship; that he should only levy reasonable profits upon the estate, without committing waste or injuring the property, and that he should up hold the castles, houses, mills, parks and ponds; and should he commit the guardianship of the estate to the sheriff or any other, he should first oblige him to find proper surety for the protection of the property. While the lands of a minor were in wardship, and not in his own possession, he was not to be obliged to pay any interest on any debt contracted with a Jew. Heirs should be married without disparagement, and before the contraction of the same the nearest relations of the person should be notified of it. A widow should enter upon her dower (a third part of her husband's rents) without paying any relief. She should not be obliged to marry as long as she chose to remain single, and should only give security not to marry without her lord's consent. It was further ordained that the king should not claim the wardship of any minor who holds lands by military tenure of a baron, on the assumption that he also holds lands of the crown by socage or any other tenure. Scutages should be estimated at a rate the same as in the reign of Henry I., and that no scutage should be imposed except by the great council of the kingdom, save in three general feudal cases, to wit: the king's captivity, the knighting of the king's eldest son, and the marriage of his eldest daughter. (A scutage was a tax or contribution levied upon those who held lands by knights' service, originally, a composition for personal service which the tenant owed to his lord, but afterward levied as an assessment. Blackstone.) On summoning the great council of the kingdom, prelates, earls and great barons should be called to its session by a particular writ, and the lesser barons by a general summons of the sheriff. The land of a baron should not be seized by the king to satisfy a debt to the crown, if the goods and chattels of the baron were sufficient to discharge the debt. No man should be compelled to perform more service for his fee than he is bound to by his tenure. No knight should be forced to give money for castle guard to a governor or constable of a castle if he be willing to perform the service in person or provide another able-bodied man in his place; and should the knight be in the field himself by order of the king, he should be exempt from all other service of this character. No vassal should be permitted to sell so much of his land as would incapacitate him from performing his service to his lord.


—The foregoing were the principal articles of the charter as first drawn by the barons. They were prepared entirely, it would appear, in the interest of themselves and the clergy. Had the charter contained nothing further, in the interest of the people, it would not have promoted the national happiness and freedom, as it would have resulted alone in augmenting the power and independence of a class already in authority, whose rule might thereby become more absolute and burdensome than that of the monarch. In fact, it would have been merely granting liberal powers and privileges to the kings, clergy and barons by royal charter, while the rigor of Norman feudal law remained in all its repugnancy toward the people, and not the restoration of the laws of Henry I. to the nation, and the adoption of those other great principles of liberty forming the groundwork of English constitutional law, which have been characterized as an engrafting of Norman feudalism on the "ancient customs of England," such as previously existed under Saxon and Danish free institutions, and in which "ancient customs" were embraced the liberal laws of Edward the Confessor.


—The people, however, perceived this weakness of the charter and demanded that other articles, relating particularly to their personal freedom, should be inserted, without which it would have proven of little benefit to themselves and could not have obtained their support. The barons, who relied upon the concurrence of the people to enforce their own demands upon the king, and without which aid they were in a great measure powerless, were thus compelled to insert other clauses of a more extensive and beneficent nature, comprehending the interests and benefits of inferior ranks of men. It was therefore ordained by the charter that all rights and immunities granted to the barons by the king should in like manner be extended by the barons to their inferiors, vassals and dependents. That the king should bind himself not to grant any writ authorizing a baron to levy aids from his vassals, save in the three enumerated feudal cases. That one weight and one measure should be established throughout the kingdom. That merchants should be permitted to transact all business without the infliction of arbitrary tolls and impositions, and that they and all free men should not be debarred from departing from and returning to the kingdom at pleasure. That the ancient liberties, privileges and free customs of London and all cities and burghs should be preserved. That tributes should not be imposed upon them except by the great council of the kingdom. That no town or individual should be obliged to build or support bridges but by ancient customs. That every freeman should be permitted to dispose of his goods according to his own will, and if he die intestate his heirs succeed to them. That no horses, carts or wood should be taken by any officer of the crown without the consent of the owner. That the king's courts of justice should no longer follow him about the kingdom, but should be permanently located; that they should be open to all, and that justice should be no longer refused, delayed or be sold by them. That circuits should be held regularly every year; and that inferior courts of justice—the county court, sheriff's term and court-leet—should meet at their appointed time and places. (A court-leet in English law is a court of record held once a year, in a particular hundred, lordship or manor, before the steward of the leet. Blackstone.) That sheriffs should be deprived of the power to hold pleas of the crown, and should not put any one upon trial from rumor or suspicion, but upon the evidence of lawful witnesses. (The office of sheriff in England is judicial and ministerial. His judicial authority was formerly of considerable extent. It is now, however, generally confined to ascertaining damages on writs of inquiry and the like. Wharton.) That no freeman should be taken or imprisoned or be disseized of his freehold or liberties or free customs, or be otherwise damaged, nor should the king "pass upon him, nor send upon him, but by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land." (In this provision of magna charta was laid the foundation of the writ of habeas corpus.) That all who had suffered otherwise in this or the two preceding reigns should be restored to their rights and possessions. That a flue imposed upon a freeman should be in proportion to his offense, and that no fine should be imposed upon him that would prove his utter ruin. That even a villain or rustic should not by any fine be bereaved of his carts, plows and implements of husbandry. This latter clause was the only one inserted for the especial benefit of a class which probably at that time was the most numerous in the kingdom. (Hume's Hist. Eng.)


—The incorporation by the people of these latter articles in the charter, not only mitigated the severity of the feudal law toward themselves as well as the nobility, but likewise established justice and equality before the law, confirmed the personal freedom of the subject, and formed the perfect outlines of a strictly legal government. By some historians they are believed to have been those liberal Saxon laws framed by Edward the Confessor.


—The king having acceded to these demands of the barons and people, other guarantees were required as a safeguard of the great charter. The king was obliged to agree that London should remain in possession of the barons, and the tower be given into the custody of the primate, until the fifteenth day of the following August, or until the execution of the articles of the great charter To insure that the provisions of this charter should be carried into effect, twenty-five members of a council were to be appointed from their own numbers, as guardians of the public liberties, and their authority was not to be limited in either extent or duration. And it was further ordained that if an attempt should be made to violate the charter, either by the king, justiciaries, sheriffs or foresters, four of these conservators should demand of the king a redress of the grievance. If proper satisfaction was not duly made, the council of twenty-five should then be called together, who, with the great council, were granted the power to compel him to observe the provisions of the charter; and in case of resistance on the part of the king, war should at once be levied against him, his castles attacked and every kind of violence employed save that of personal injury to himself and his family. All subjects without distinction were obliged, under the penalty of confiscation, to swear obedience to the twenty-five barons; and twelve knights in each county were to be chosen by its freeholders, who were to report such violations of the charter as might require redress.


—The twenty-five conservators first appointed, and whose names have been preserved in the historical records of the great charter, were the earls of Clare, Albemarle, Gloucester, Winchester, Hereford, Roger Bigod earl of Norfolk, Robert Vere earl of Oxford. William Mareschal the younger, Robert Fitz-Walter, Gilbert de Clare, Eastuce de Vescey, Gilbert Delaval, William de Moubray, Geoffray de Say, Roger de Mombezon, William de Huntingfield, Robert de Ros, the constable of Chester, William de Aubenie, Richard de Perci, William Malet, John Fitz-Robert, William de Lanvelay, Hugh de Bigod, and Roger de Montfichet. In their hands the sovereignty of the kingdom was virtually invested, and in the exercise of executive authority they were by the act placed superior to the king, as in the affairs of government there was hardly anything happening relating to the observance of the great charter that might not under its provisions fall under their authority. (Hume's Hist. Eng.)


—At first the king adhered strictly to all of these regulations, however humiliating to his sense of personal sovereignty, and in a spirit of perfect obedience himself sent writs to all his sheriffs directing them to compel every one to swear obedience to the commands of the twenty-five barons. In these acts, however, the perfidious king strove to disguise his ultimate design. To lull the suspicions of those of his subjects who might still doubt his fealty of purpose, he discharged from his service all foreign levies and affirmed that his government should thenceforth be administered in a liberal and lawful manner, conducive to the happiness and independence of his people. His well-formed purpose was, while outwardly observing these forms, to await a propitious moment and by force of arms overcome the barons, and again enslave the people. He secretly dispatched emissaries abroad to gather a foreign army, promising as a reward of their victory over his own people the spoils of his kingdom. To Rome he sent a messenger and placed before the pope a copy of the great charter which his subjects had compelled him to sign. As his feudal lord of the kingdom, he demanded of the pontiff his papal aid and protection. In response to the king's appeals the pope issued a bull abrogating and annulling the whole charter, prohibiting the barons from exacting observance of it and the king from paying any regard to it; absolving the king and his subjects from all oaths imposed for its observance, and excommunicating every one who should persist in maintaining such disloyal and treasonable demands.


—Under the sanction of this decree from the Roman pontiff, upon the arrival of his foreign forces, the king endeavored by proclamation to recall the liberties which he had solemnly granted to the people. The primate, however, refused to publish the sentence of excommunication against the king's subjects, and the clergy, the barons and the people all conspired to defend their chartered liberties. The king was therefore compelled to rely solely upon his foreign levies to restore his ancient powers. With remorseless vengeance he ordered these mercenaries to make war upon his subjects and lay waste the estates, manors, houses and parks of the barons. Villages in ruins and castles in ashes followed the torch and marked the track of the barbarous soldiery. Horrible tortures were employed to make the people reveal the hiding place of their treasures. The king marched through the entire extent of his kingdom from Dover to Berwick, and laid waste the provinces on each side of him. The barons, on the other hand, incensed at the perpetration of such acts on the part of their king, made reprisals no less extreme. They rallied in force, devastated the king's demesnes, and with fire and sword laid in blackened ruins the king's castles, parks and palaces. The whole kingdom was ravaged, the people slaughtered, and society reduced to anarchy. (Hume's Hist. Eng.) In the midst of this desolating war the king died. While engaged in assembling a large army with a view of fighting a decisive battle for his crown, and passing from Lynne to Lincolnshire on the seacoast, purposely avoiding the main road, he lost by an inundation of the road all his treasure, carriages, baggage and regalia. This disaster, joined with the distracted condition of his affairs, increased the disease with which at that time he was suffering, and on reaching the castle of Newark he expired, in the forty-ninth year of his age. By his demise the nation was at once disenthralled.


—Henry, the infant son of John, succeeded to the throne as Henry III., with the earl of Pembroke, then mareschal of England, at the head of the government as protector of the realm, he having been chosen to that responsible position by a general council of the barons, assembled at Bristol.


—At the suggestion of Pembroke, who appears in history as a wise and far-sighted as well as a broad and liberal statesman, the young king granted a new charter of liberties, confirming all that his father had granted, and bestowing, in addition thereto, other and important concessions. This charter was again confirmed by the king the following year, with an additional article preventing oppression by sheriffs, and an additional charter known as the charter of forests, abrogating the peculiar and arbitrary laws which had for many years oppressed the people. All the forests which had been inclosed since the reign of Henry II. were disafforested and new rules and regulations adopted for passing through them. Capital punishment was no longer inflicted for forestry offenses, but such offenses became henceforth punishable only by fines and imprisonment. Under this charter the proprietors of lands recovered the right to cut and use wood from their own estates. Thus through revolution was born these great principles of human freedom, and as the historian Hume remarks: "Thus these famous charters were brought nearly to the shape in which they have ever since stood; and they were during many generations the peculiar favorites of the English nation, and esteemed the most sacred ramparts to national liberty and independence. As they secured the rights of all orders of men, they were anxiously defended by all, and became the basis in a manner of the English monarchy, and a kind of original contract which both limited the authority of the king and secured the conditional allegiance of his subjects."


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