Authors born between 1100 and 1300 CE
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Freedom from Arbitrary Imprisonment and Trial
Freedom from Arbitrary Seizure
Right to Proper Courts
Freedom from Excessive Fines
Rights of Widows and Orphans
Freedom of Cities and Regions
Freedom of Travel
Right to Lawful Weights and Measures
Extension of Freedoms and Rights to Others
Magna Carta (The Great or Long Charter) has became a significant document in the evolution of civil rights. It emerged from an agreement signed on June 15, 1215 CE, by King John of England in the meadow of Runnymede. He put his seal on the document at the insistence of an assembly of barons who had captured London during a revolt against Johnís tax policies and his conduct in general. After the addition of further provisions to these Articles of the Barons, a formal document that has come to be known as Magna Carta was issued on June 19. In September, John persuaded Pope Innocent II to annul this agreement. A civil war followed. After John died, the regents of his son, Henry III, issued a revised version in 1217. Henry himself issued another revision in 1225, which has come to be recognized as the final version of Magna Carta.
Although Magna Carta is important to the evolution of civil rights, it was drawn up to address the specific grievances of a privileged aristocracy and to restore their ancient rights. It is set in the context of a feudal society where barons held their land "in fee" from the king and in return were bound to him by an oath of loyalty and obedience. They initially provided military support for the king by parceling out their estates to knights who made an oath of loyalty to them. In turn, minor officials and serfs were bound to the knights by oaths of loyalty and commitment to military service, in exchange for protection. Within this rigid feudal structure, a minor change appearing in the June 19 document had little immediate effect, but as feudal society crumbled with the emergence of new artisan and merchant classes, the impact became profound.
The Articles of the Barons stipulated that the liberties gained applied to any baron. Magna Carta changed this to any free man. It states "To all free men of our kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, . . ." The free men were a small minority in 1215, but in later centuries they became the majority. They read Magna Carta as asserting that even kings must obey common law, and used this as an argument against oppressive acts by Stuart kings, most notably Charles I. When the English Bill of Rights was drawn up in 1689, it relied heavily for its basis on Magna Carta. In addition, as this was the era when English colonies were being formed in North America, many of the liberties defended in Magna Carta were incorporated in colonial legal codes, and later in the Constitution of the United States. There were also critics of the Charter and many in power dismissed it. When Oliver Cromwell imprisoned a merchant disputing to his right to levy taxes, he ordered the judges to ignore the writ of habeas corpus based on Magna Carta, as that document could not control the actions of Oliver Cromwell--an attitude towards law that has been expressed regularly during the past five millenia.
It is worth noting that every time a document such as this is drawn up to limit the abuses of power, it draws attention to the fact that such abuses continue to exist. Similar abuses to those in Magna Carter were rectified by some of the Sumerian kings in the third millenium BCE.
The feudal king could not only demand military service from his barons, he could also make a number of financial demands that were an occasion for extortion. He could demand a special financial levy when his eldest daughter married. He could demand a succession duty from the heir of a baron. If the succession was disputed or void, the king could seize the baron's lands. If the heir was under age, the king could take over the guardianship of the estates and make off with the profits and property. He could sell such a guardianship to the highest bidder and sell the heir in marriage. Widows and daughters of barons could also be sold in marriage, a right that Barons also enjoyed over their own tenants.
Magna Carta was drawn up in a hurry to meet pressing concerns such as these in the mind of various barons. It bears the marks of haste, individual grievances, and bargaining for advantage. It does not deal with general principles of law, care has not been taken to achieve a logical structure, and some of the agreements are specific to the detailed operations of feudal society. The paragraphs below have been extracted from a translation of the 1225 document provided by the British Museum. They have been rearranged in a sequence that takes account of modern categories of freedoms and rights. The text in the original document runs continuously and the clauses were not numbered. The numbering added by the British Museum for clarity is shown at the end of each paragraph.
1 To all free men of our kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs:
2 No free 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 judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. (39)
3 In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it. (38)
4 In future nothing shall be paid or accepted for the issue of a writ of inquisition of life or limbs. It shall be given gratis, and not refused. (36)
5 To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice. (40)
6 No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband. (54)
7 No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this. (28)
8 No constable may compel a knight to pay money for castle-guard if the knight is willing to undertake the guard in person, or with reasonable excuse to supply some other fit man to do it. A knight taken or sent on military service shall be excused from castle-guard for the period of this service.(29)
9 No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent. (30)
10 Neither we nor any royal official will take wood for our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner. (31)
11 We will not keep the lands of people convicted of felony in our hand for longer than a year and a day, after which they shall be returned to the lords of the 'fees' concerned. (32)
12 Neither we nor our officials will seize any land or rent in payment of a debt, so long as the debtor has movable goods sufficient to discharge the debt. A debtor's sureties shall not be distrained upon so long as the debtor himself can discharge his debt. If, for lack of means, the debtor is unable to discharge his debt, his sureties shall be answerable for it. If they so desire, they may have the debtor's lands and rents until they have received satisfaction for the debt that they paid for him, unless the debtor can show that he has settled his obligations to them. (9)
13 Ordinary lawsuits shall not follow the royal court around, but shall be held in a fixed place. (17)
14 If any assizes cannot be taken on the day of the county court, as many knights and freeholders shall afterwards remain behind, of those who have attended the court, as will suffice for the administration of justice, having regard to the volume of business to be done. (19)
15 No sheriff, constable, coroners, or other royal officials are to hold lawsuits that should be held by the royal justices. (24)
16 The writ called precipe shall not in future be issued to anyone in respect of any holding of land, if a free man could thereby be deprived of the right of trial in his own lord's court. (34)
17 People who live outside the forest need not in future appear before the royal justices of the forest in answer to general summonses, unless they are actually involved in proceedings or are sureties for someone who has been seized for a forest offence. (44)
18 For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a husbandman the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood. (20)
19 Earls and barons shall be fined only by their equals, and in proportion to the gravity of their offence. (21)
20 A fine imposed upon the lay property of a clerk in holy orders shall be assessed upon the same principles, without reference to the value of his ecclesiastical benefice. (22)
21 If at the death of a man who holds a lay 'fee' of the Crown, a sheriff or royal official produces royal letters patent of summons for a debt due to the Crown, it shall be lawful for them to seize and list movable goods found in the lay 'fee' of the dead man to the value of the debt, as assessed by worthy men. Nothing shall be removed until the whole debt is paid, when the residue shall be given over to the executors to carry out the dead man s will. If no debt is due to the Crown, all the movable goods shall be regarded as the property of the dead man, except the reasonable shares of his wife and children. (26)
22 At her husband's death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband's house for forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned to her. (7)
23 No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of. (8)
24 The guardian of the land of an heir who is under age shall take from it only reasonable revenues, customary dues, and feudal services. He shall do this without destruction or damage to men or property. If we have given the guardianship of the land to a sheriff, or to any person answerable to us for the revenues, and he commits destruction or damage, we will exact compensation from him, and the land shall be entrusted to two worthy and prudent men of the same 'fee', who shall be answerable to us for the revenues, or to the person to whom we have assigned them. If we have given or sold to anyone the guardianship of such land, and he causes destruction or damage, he shall lose the guardianship of it, and it shall be handed over to two worthy and prudent men of the same 'fee', who shall be similarly answerable to us. (4)
25 For so long as a guardian has guardianship of such land, he shall maintain the houses, parks, fish preserves, ponds, mills, and everything else pertaining to it, from the revenues of the land itself. When the heir comes of age, he shall restore the whole land to him, stocked with plough teams and such implements of husbandry as the season demands and the revenues from the land can reasonably bear. (5)
26 Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be' made known to the heir's next-of-kin. (6)
27 The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water. We also will and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall enjoy all their liberties and free customs. (13)
28 If we have deprived or dispossessed any Welshmen of lands, liberties, or anything else in England or in Wales, without the lawful judgement of their equals, these are at once to be returned to them. A dispute on this point shall be determined in the Marches by the judgement of equals. English law shall apply to holdings of land in England, Welsh law to those in Wales, and the law of the Marches to those in the Marches. The Welsh shall treat us and ours in the same way. (56)
29 No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so. (23)
29 All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs. This, however, does not apply in time of war to merchants from a country that is at war with us. Any such merchants found in our country at the outbreak of war shall be detained without injury to their persons or property, until we or our chief justice have discovered how our own merchants are being treated in the country at war with us. If our own merchants are safe they shall be safe too. (41)
30 All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast. (33)
31 All forests that have been created in our reign shall at once be disafforested. River-banks that have been enclosed in our reign shall be treated similarly. (47)
32 There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly. (35)
33 All these customs and liberties that we have granted shall be observed in our kingdom in so far as concerns our own relations with our subjects. Let all men of our kingdom, whether clergy or laymen, observe them similarly in their relations with their own men. (60)
Manga Carta, translated by the British Library, London, England.
Magna Carta: the Heritage of Liberty, by Anne Pallister. Oxford University Press, London, 1971.