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David Eyles: Why the Magna Carta still matters - the history (Part I of II)

David Eyles is a Dorset livestock farmer.

The Magna Carta has been cited several times in recent months, not least by David Davis in his resignation speech on the steps of the House of Commons. The media response to his speech and the resulting by-election was almost one of puzzlement and in many cases, dismissal. The relevance of the Magna Carta has been sidelined in a rush of sound bites and a lack of understanding. In reading both the document itself in translation, and the background, it seemed to me to be startlingly relevant to the present day. I am not a medieval scholar nor an expert in constitutional law, but a farmer; and for that I make no apologies. The following notes are taken from the British Library translation of the document itself and Domesday Book to Magna Carta by A.L. Poole (Oxford History of England, 2nd edition 1955). For an insight into the strategic significance of the battle of Bouvines, the oddly euro-centric The Isles by Norman Davies (Macmillan 1999) is useful. There is a good discussion on the delicate balance between a medieval king and his aristocracy in the early chapters of England in the later Middle Ages by M.H. Keen (Rouledge, 1973). And for sheer, roaring narrative, Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (BBC 2000) is enjoyable. In the summary below, I have plundered all of these sources, but the factual information is principally from Poole and the document itself. Where I have been judgemental of John’s character or the modern consequences of the document, those opinions are mine and subject to accusations of error from professional historians. But in those judgements, I am often at odds with Poole who seemed strangely given to finding excuses for John. I prefer to listen to the opinions of Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, both chroniclers at the monastery of St Albans. They were contemporaneous with the signing of the Magna Carta and also the depredation of many abbeys during the Interdict and subsequent excommunication of John. Accordingly, I lay before you the following for discussion:

By the time he came to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede on the 15th June 1215, King John had had an eventful but largely negative reign. He had lost nearly all his territories in France to the wily and ambitious Philip Augustus of France, who had defeated John diplomatically and strategically and was now threatening invasion of England from his new Channel ports in Normandy. John’s alliance and expeditionary force with Otto and the Low Countries had failed at Bouvines in 1214. An earlier dispute with the church over the election of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury had led to the Pope placing an interdict on the whole country which resulted in a religious lockout for everyone – services could not be performed in church, marriages likewise and the dead buried in unconsecrated ground. As the argument with Pope Innocent III progressed, John was himself excommunicated. His barons had been forced to choose between their estates in Normandy and England. Whichever they chose, their incomes were severely reduced. The development of a standing navy to counter the threat from Philip Augustus; the payment of a standing professional army and mercenaries to fight the apparently endless campaigns in France and the huge bribes paid out to sometimes unreliable allies in the Low Countries had all fallen upon England to pay. John was in a fix of his own making. Isolated by the pope, threatened by a newly united France and having provoked many of his own barons into revolt, John had to make concessions somewhere. He sought forgiveness from Innocent III by confirming Stephen Langton’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury and conceding the Kingdom of England and Ireland to the Pope. This was handed back, under fealty to Innocent III, for the fee of 1000 marks a year. England was now a feudal vassal state of a pan-European power.

Whilst John was militarily often on the losing side, he carried on his father’s interest in the law and was assiduous in travelling about the country to hand down the law to his subjects. The problem was that his enthusiasm for spending money was matched by his deviousness in raising it by ensuring that all parties in a lawsuit, criminal or civil, paid handsomely to the crown. Effectively, the royal assize was an exercise in the getting of yet more revenue. Having bled his subjects dry of cash, goodwill and support for his adventures in France, John was faced with rebellion by many of his northern and eastern barons and was forced to negotiate at Runnymede.

The feudal system was a top down pyramid of government based upon the tenancy of land. The only absolute owner of land was the crown; everyone else was a tenant to a feudal overlord and he to the king himself. Fees (rent) were paid, allegiance and military service owed and payments in kind were transmitted up the pyramid to the king, with each stage taking profit for their own subsistence.  The other principle points at which the crown would levy taxes were at the inheritance of an estate or title. In the end, everyone paid. John’s expensive failures meant that just about all of the nobility were chronically short of cash and had to resort to moneylenders – usually Jewish because it was forbidden for Christians to charge interest on a loan.

At first sight, the Magna Carta is a hotchpotch of clauses which, even to this day, look like the remedies for a litany of petty complaints. Clauses dealing with the payment of ‘reliefs’, ‘aids’, ‘scutage’, ‘fee-farm’, ‘socage’ and ‘burgage’ are all types of rent which amount to taxes. There are about twelve such clauses scattered throughout the document. Other clauses such as those which concern guardianship of an underage heir are all designed to prevent abuse, mostly by the king, in taking control of an estate before an heir comes of age and then stripping the assets; only to hand back a ravaged estate when the heir comes into his inheritance. John’s habit of selling widows and underage heirs into marriage further added to his income. Other kinds of guardianship involve abbeys which revert to the feudal lord or king when an abbot dies and before the next one is appointed. This situation was exploited fully by John who enjoyed the income of the abbey in the interregnum- sometimes deliberately extended by his failure to appoint a new abbot. It was in practices like this that John was adept at manipulating to the advantage of the exchequer. About four clauses are concerned with improving the efficiency of the administration of the law. Four clauses sort out abuses of Royal forest law and three are designed to ensure that debt was not so crippling as to deprive a man of his means of earning a living. Eight clauses concern security of property and trade as well as the means to conduct it, for instance in the removal of fish weirs to facilitate transport of goods. Many town charters were apprehended by John on any pretext he could find, as another means of raising revenue by demanding cash for their return and confirmation. Further clauses concerned the return of fines and land seized unjustly by the king, whilst another states that the king will not sell, deny or delay justice – further proof, it were needed, that John’s progress around his own dominion was marked by corruption and extortion.

Two clauses deal with criminal law: the first demanding credible evidence before a man is placed on trial. The second demanding trial by a jury of his equals before he is stripped of his rights or possessions or imprisoned. The first of these became habeas corpus and the second was a confirmation of a system that was sometimes used in Saxon times but often circumvented under the Normans. Besides, John liked to witness trials by combat himself – the bloodier the better.

A modern economist observing the conditions of England in 1215 would probably have seen a country struggling with high debt, huge expenditure by the state in wasteful wars and extravagant expenditure by the king; high and arbitrary taxation and signs of people struggling with widespread corruption by state officials, injustice and poor communications. The only industry which seemed to be doing well was money lending. The same economist, looking at the Magna Carta, might also note that many clauses led to the stabilising of law into a just system where everyone knew where he stood; where debt repayment was not punitive; where taxes were low or at least tolerable and predictable; where merchants and their goods could move without interference and where corruption and extortion was minimal. The rule of law, low taxes, respect for property and good transport are all conditions required for free trade. With a generally more settled and peaceful time at home, after the death of John, England’s economy improved remarkably with increasing exports of our main product – wool.

Aside from its economic legacy, the Magna Carta left behind enduring constitutional principles that are still with us today. Having cut off John’s means of raising stealth taxes by clarifying what he could and could not do in the way of manipulating ordinary feudal law, the barons made it a condition that the king could not raise taxes (‘aids’) except by agreement with his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and greater barons. Clause 14 makes it a condition that a letter of summons would be issued, giving the reasons for the summons and 40 days notice. On the appointed day, the business will be decided by majority rule. When a modern Chancellor of the Exchequer stands up in the House of Commons, he is summoning and giving notice; the debate for the subsequent Finance Bill is the outcome of this 800 year old clause. It should also be noted that this formal gathering of bishops and peers amounted to a parliament constituted to discuss and agree the demands of the executive.


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