1215: The Year of the Magna Carta

by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

You probably learned in school that the Magna Carta is one of the most important milestones in the development of the concepts of limited government and individual liberties. You probably learned that a bunch of barons forced a reluctant King John to sign it at Runnymede. But that’s nowhere near the whole story.

First, did you ever wonder how those barons forced King John to sign it? The answer is simple: they were rebelling against him and it was pretty clear that they would win. So King John signed it as a novel kind of peace treaty. In effect, the barons told King John “If you promise to be nice to us, we won’t overthrow you.” 

Which all sounds very good until you learn that the Magna Carta was a failure. King John, a true tyrant at heart, went back on his word within months and resumed his bad behaviors, whereupon the barons resumed the civil war. 

In those days of castles, war consisted of long sieges. When you were fighting in a foreign country, you didn’t bother assaulting the castles, which were very hard nuts to crack. Instead, you ravaged the countryside, killing all the peasants, taking all the crops and livestock, and burning everything else. This destroyed the economic base supporting the lord of castle, forcing him to either come out and defend his peasants, or come to terms with you.

But John couldn’t get away with that at home in England. Slaughtering his own people would have been really bad P/R, so John had to fall back on the time-consuming strategy of reducing baron’s castles one by one, while they gathered their big army. 

The years rolled by as John and the barons maneuvered, strategized, gained and lost allies, appealed to the Pope, and energetically accomplished nothing much. Then John got sick and died, and that was the end of the civil war. Henry, his heir and successor was only 9 years old and no threat to anybody, and killing children was something even the medieval barons couldn’t stomach. 

Instead, they fell back on a novel stunt: they revived the Magna Carta (along with a few politic revisions) and declared that, since John had in fact signed it, it was still very much in force and the new king would be expected to abide by its provisions. Since the new king was in no position to object, the failed peace treaty morphed into the foundation for future English law. 

The charter has 63 clauses presenting specific constraints upon the king’s power. The issues these clauses address cannot be construed as paranoid fantasies on the part of the barons; for the most part, they address policies the king had pursued, and they therefore give us an idea of just how tyrannical he truly was. Here are a few examples:

12. No scutage or aid (that is, tax) is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm…

23. No vill or man shall be forced to build bridges at river banks, except those who ought to do so by custom and law.

28. No constable or any other of our bailiffs shall take any man’s corn or other chattels unless he pays cash for them at once or can delay payment with the agreement of the seller.

30. No sheriff or bailiff of ours is to take horses or carts from any free man without his agreement.

38. Henceforth, no bailiff shall put anyone on trial by his own unsupported allegation, without bringing credible witnesses to the charge.

45. We will not make justices, sheriffs, constables, or bailiffs who do not know the law of the land…

47. All forests that we have seized shall be returned…

These clauses show how far amok John had run: he was, in essence, grabbing whatever he wanted, fining anybody he felt like fining, and executing anybody he felt like executing.

There’s an important conclusion to draw from the history of the Magna Carta. In general, powerful people can get away with abuse of their power so long as they are discreet about it, and don’t overreach. Even today, our news teems with stories of powerful people taking advantage of less powerful people. But society seems to give them considerable latitude; people step in only when an abuser overestimates his invulnerability and crosses an invisible line. That’s when they slap a Magna Carta on you.