Magna-Carta-1-art - 1/3/97
"Those Revolting Barons: The Context of Magna Carta" by Nicolaa de Bracton of
NOTE: See also the files: Magna-Carta-2-art, Magna-Carta-man, parchment-msg,
seals-msg, Paleo-Scribes-art, p-lawyers-msg.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanıs Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
Those Revolting Barons: The Context of Magna Carta
--Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester
What is Magna Carta? Those who went through the British school systems,
as well as many on this continent, would tell you that Magna Carta is the
fundamental document of English Common law, upon which not only modern British
law, but also modern Canadian and American law are based. But what does that
really mean? The Great Charter (as Magna Carta translates into English) is not
a constitution (as some Americans often mistakenly believe). It does not set up
an entire parliamentary system (as some British folk often assume). When the
Charter was drafted, those who did the work had no intentions of founding a new
government. In fact, most of the articles in the Charter are specific responses
to particular problems in early thirteenth century England. Many of them did
have long-term implications in English history, but like any historical
document, the articles received differing interpretations at each period. What
I hope to give you in this article is the background to understand the specific
circumstances that lead to the Barons' Revolt, which culminated in the signing
of Magna Carta. And to do this, we must meet up with English Common Law.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 had imposed a fairly centralized royal
government over the whole of England which proved to have staying power.
William I instituted a pyramidal system of government that complemented to some
extent the system already in place in the late Anglo-Saxon period. Two types of
units were in place. The local units were a holdover from the Anglo-Saxon
period, wherein the basic unit was the village (or vill); a group of vills
formed a hundred, and a group of hundreds formed a shire or county. Both the
hundred and the shire had their own courts, consisting of all the free men in
that jurisdiction. There were also the feudal units, of which the basic unit
was the manor; many manorial lords were able to successfully take over the
hundred courts in their vicinity and turn them into de facto manorial courts.
The king, who officially owned all secular land in England, distributed land to
his tenants-in-chief (who usually had the rank of earl) in return for military
service (and later, rents). These great magnates in turn gave land to their
vassals in return for rent and military service, and so on down the line..
The system of law which grew out of this resulted in hundreds of courts
claiming jurisdiction over various peoples. The tenant who found himself
holding land from a number of overlords often found this quite confusing, not to
mention the fact that particularly in manorial courts, the interpretation of
customary law was at the whim of the lord of the manor--which could be a
blessing or a burden, depending on the lord. The right to dispense law in oneıs
jurisdiction was seen by the lords as one of their fundamental rights over their
vassals. It is not surprising to note that the great magnates of the eleventh
and twelfth centuries, by right of these manorial courts, became powerful
figures indeed. As time passed and these lands became more and more associated
with particular families, it became clear that should a weak king come to the
throne, chaos might ensue.
This, of course, happened during the reign of Stephen and Matilda (1135-
1254). Upon the death of Henry I Stephen was able to seize the English throne
before his cousin, Henryıs daughter, could arrive in England. The next two
decades saw each party gain the upper hand several times, only to have allied
barons (earls and other magnates) switch alliances at crucial moments. Neither
was strong enough to effectively control England by force or to gain the loyalty
of a majority of the barons for any extended period of time.
When Matilda's son, Henry II came to the throne upon the death of Stephen,
he was determined not to make any of the same mistakes, but rather to clearly
establish his authority over England. The method he chose was the extension of
royal law--the birth of what would evolve into English common law. Prior to
Henry II, royal law had been most prominent in the body of the curia regis --
the court consisting of the King, the great magnates, and the king's financial
and administrative officers, including the justiciar (the king's official
representative in legal matters and during his absence), the chancellor, and the
exchequer. The king also delegated magnates to preside over local courts, but
took a hands-off approach in most matters of justice not directly affecting the
Crown. What Henry II did is to create a bureaucracy where none had existed
before, staffed more and more by professionals, even if headed by a noble. And
the courts were particularly affected by this "Royal jurisdiction and royal law"
were imposed, says Berman ³upon criminal and civil matters which had previously
been under local and feudal jurisdiction ....and law². The result was the
creation of a system of royal courts in each county, presided over by itinerant
professional judges traveling a circuit. Methods of summoning defendants were
standardized, as were penalties, and the concept of trial or decision by a jury
of oneıs neighbors was enshrined, as was the distinction between civil and
criminal cases. Perhaps most significantly, the rather difficult concept of
"seisin"-- the right to occupy land, regardless of ownership--was developed.
One who had seisin of land had the right to occupy that land, no matter who was
actually living there or who "owned" it. And disputes and land transfers thus
came under the jurisdiction of royal courts--and left the control of feudal
Thus, from a legal standpoint England at Henry II's death was a far
different place than it had been when he ascended the throne. No longer were
manorial courts to be given jurisdiction over criminal matters or land
transfers--these were matters for the royal courts, which were increasingly
staffed by professionals and which often ruled against the great magnates in
favour of the Crown. The functions once performed by the curia regis were
increasingly delegated to professional bureaucrats overseen by one of the great
magnates. And Henry had taken other steps to increase his own holdings in
England by placing large swaths of land into forest. Forest lands were not
necessarily those with trees, but rather, were private hunting preserves in the
direct possession of the King. Strict regulations about the cutting of trees,
the killing of game, and the use of other fruits of the forest, such as nuts,
were imposed on these regions, and the people who lived there came under the
jurisdiction of special forest courts, rather than the local or feudal courts.
Both lords and commoners reacted negatively to this forestation--the lords
because of their loss of jurisdiction and hunting privileges; the commoners
because of the loss of common lands. By the reign of John, this trend had
become so pronounced that entire counties had been "forested".
Henry II had been a strong-willed king with the force of personality to
impose his legal reforms on a reluctant England. The reforms were grudgingly
accepted by most, since the courts quickly gained a reputation for fairness, but
the great magnates grumbled at their loss of jurisdiction. Many of them could
and did serve as justices or in the royal household, but it was increasingly
clear that their independence was ebbing away. This would provide the backdrop
for the reign of John and the first baronial war.
Richard I, Henry II's successor, continued his father's practices of
extending royal authority, but was away on Crusade for most of his reign and so
escaped the scrutiny which would fall upon his brother John. In many ways, John
merely continued the trends set by his father and brother--but since he lacked
the extraordinary force of character of Henry II or the heroic stature of
Richard the Lionhearted, he is often seen as a "bad" king. In truth, he did
nothing which had not been done before--but he lost the support of the great
magnates which were crucial to the continuation of earlier policies by taking
them perhaps too far. I have already mentioned the skyrocketing rate of
forestation. John (like Richard before him) believed that the widow of one of
his vassals was in a sense his to dispose of, and so often she would be married
off to the richest suitor, at a handsome profit to the royal coffers. Heirs to
baronial estates were often made to pay huge fines in order to gain possession,
and the wardships of those who were underage were often sold to the highest
bidder, or exploited by the Crown until the heir came of age--upon which the
aforementioned huge fine was due.
On the political front, John seemed to believe that his own power was
enough to run the country without the barons. After the loss of Normandy at the
beginning of his reign, John became desperate to retain control of what
Continental properties he still held, and lacking support of his barons,
resorted to high taxes to raise the money for his campaigns. At the same time
he had managed to get England placed under papal interdict and himself
excommunicated by refusing to allow Stephen Langton, appointed archbishop of
Canterbury by the Pope, into the kingdom. John simply used the opportunity to
help himself to the wealth of the clergy, many of whom had left the country.
In the face of increasing baronial unrest, however, John finally submitted to
the papacy in 1213, making England officially a papal fief and gaining himself a
powerful ally in the Pope.
Copyright 1996 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
All Rights Reserved
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Generated: Sun Dec 10 2000