Magna Carta in context

From the medieval Church to money-lending, feudal rights to the royal forest, discover how Magna Carta was both influenced by, and impacted upon, the institutions and customs of its day.
Despite the enduring legacy of Magna Carta and its lasting message — that there are limits to the power of our rulers — much of the 1215 document dealt with issues affecting the people and institutions of medieval England. Learn more about the historical context in which the events of 1215 occurred, and how the document changed the customs of the day.

Feudal rights and obligations

The feudal system was the framework governing all landholding in medieval England. In the feudal hierarchy, all land was ultimately held from the king, in a complex web stretching down from the king’s tenants-in-chief, through a series of under-tenants, to the rural peasantry at the bottom. Everyone in this hierarchy had rights and obligations which were regulated by long-established custom.

The king was entitled to many customary payments from his tenants-in-chief. He could demand money on the marriage of his eldest daughter or when his tenants’ heirs inherited their estates; he had the lucrative right of wardship over tenants’ heirs who were minors, and he could control the marriage of his tenants’ widows and heirs. The barons also owed the king a payment called ‘scutage’ in place of military service.

King John (r. 1199–1216) repeatedly breached the bounds of traditional practice by exploiting his feudal rights to excess. Over a third of the 63 clauses in the 1215 Magna Carta dealt directly with these rights, defining and limiting the extent of the king’s authority.

Magna Carta 1215

Original 1215 edition of Magna Carta, Cotton Augustus ii.106. Manuscript of small neat writing

One of the four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta containing the famous clause ‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

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King John’s father, Henry II (r. 1154–89), introduced extensive judicial reforms, established the authority of the royal courts and laid firm foundations for the future system of justice in England. In contrast, John regularly abused the justice system to suppress his opponents and to extort revenue from the barons. The justice system and feudal law were two of the main themes addressed in Magna Carta, and the most famous clause dealt with justice:

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.

The barons ensured that numerous other clauses in Magna Carta defined in more detail how the justice system and its officials were to operate. These clauses sought to remedy specific abuses by the king and to make the system more consistent, accessible and fair.

Magna Carta and peace

Many of the clauses towards the end of Magna Carta were practical arrangements for making peace. Rather than looking forward to how the king was to behave in the future, these clauses sought to put right the wrongs done by King John.

The king was immediately to return all hostages, to remove all foreign knights and mercenaries from England, to remit all fines exacted unjustly, and to restore lands, castles and liberties to all who had been wrongfully deprived of them. These clauses were not statements of legal principle, but they were a part of the peace-making process.

Perhaps the most radical clause in Magna Carta was the 61st, which set up an elected commission of 25 barons to monitor the king’s compliance with the settlement and to enforce its terms. The 25 barons had the power to seize the king’s property in order to seek redress if he failed to keep the terms imposed on him. This innovative clause demonstrated the power invested in Magna Carta to limit royal authority.

The Articles of the Barons

Densely written manuscript of The Article of the Barons

The concessions made by John to his barons were outlined in a document known as the 'Articles of the Barons', to which the King's great seal was attached. Meanwhile the royal chancery produced a formal royal grant, based on the agreements reached at Runnymede, which became known as Magna Carta.

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The medieval Church

For much of his reign, King John was in dispute with Pope Innocent III (1161–1216) over the election of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. When John refused to recognise the papal nominee, Stephen Langton (1150–1228), the dispute intensified. In 1208 the Pope prohibited priests in England from celebrating mass, conducting marriages in church and burying the dead in consecrated ground. John retaliated by seizing the lands and income of the Church, but in 1209 the Pope excommunicated him, turning him overnight into a spiritual outcast.

By 1212, facing the threat of a French invasion, John was forced to make peace with the Church. He accepted Langton as Archbishop in 1213, he compensated the Church for the revenues he had plundered, and he made the Pope feudal overlord of England.

This capitulation after years of bitter struggle proved to be a shrewd political act once King John had been coerced into granting Magna Carta. Within weeks, John had sent envoys to Innocent III, demanding that Magna Carta be rejected; before most of the charter’s terms could be properly implemented, the Pope declared Magna Carta null and void on 24 August 1215.

The papal bull annulling Magna Carta

Manuscript page with wax seal attached to the bottom center of the manuscript. The Papal Bull Annulling Magna Carta

This document, issued by Pope Innocent III on 24 August 1215, quashed the 1215 Magna Carta.

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Debt and money-lending

Medieval Christians were forbidden from lending money at interest, whereas Jews were free to make such loans. The King and the barons depended on Jewish money-lenders because they needed financial credit, but the King also plundered Jewish wealth through punitive levies and the confiscation of property.

Since the Crown had the right to collect debts owed to Jews who had died, Jewish loans to the barons were often profitable for the King and financially painful for the barons. Despite this, Magna Carta did not forbid the reversion to the Crown of debts owed to Jews. Indeed, Magna Carta implicitly allowed the seizure of property for the payment of debts, and neither did it prohibit imprisonment for those in debt.

Instead, Magna Carta set out principles for how debts should be collected and it corrected two minor abuses: first, if the heir of a debt to a Jew was a minor, the debt could not accrue interest; secondly, widows and minors were to be protected from excessive demands for repayment.

The royal forest

During the 12th century, King John’s predecessors, and especially his father, Henry II, had declared vast and ever increasing areas of the country to be royal forest, set aside for the king’s hunt. Prior to 1215 the extent of the forest was controlled by the king, and John increased its limits even further.

The royal forest was governed by a separate set of especially severe laws, enforced by special justices, sheriffs and wardens. All hunting was prohibited, as were bows and arrows, greyhounds, hawks and falcons, the cultivation of land and the felling of trees. Those living in the forest were unable to exploit the land’s resources and were subject to fines for any breach of forest law.

The barons used Magna Carta to regulate the boundaries of the forest, investigate its officials and reform forest law. These clauses subsequently formed the basis of the separate Charter of the Forest in 1217.

The Forest Charter of 1225

The Forest Charter of 1225. Manuscript with large seal attached the the bottom of the Charter

The Charter of the Forest, issued with the revised Magna Carta by Henry III in 1217, re-established rights of access to the forest for free men.

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Towns and trade

England’s cities and towns were evolving rapidly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Urban populations were growing, commercial life was expanding, and the complex structures of urban administration were beginning to emerge. In London, the only large city in England, networks of craftsmen, tradesmen and shopkeepers supported a thriving urban culture, and the River Thames was busy with merchant traffic. The city jealously guarded the extent of its self-governance and its financial freedoms.

Only three of the clauses of Magna Carta that were enrolled on the statute roll in 1297 are still valid today, one of which declares that London and all other cities, boroughs, towns and ports shall enjoy their ancient liberties and customs.
  • Claire Breay
  • Claire Breay is Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library. She is co-curator of the Library’s major exhibition Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy (13 March–1 September 2015) and editor of the exhibition catalogue.
  • Julian Harrison
  • Julian Harrison is Lead Curator of Medieval Historical Manuscripts at the British Library, and lead curator of the Harry Potter exhibition. He also co-curated the Library’s major exhibition Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy (2015) and the Our Shakespeare exhibition at the Library of Birmingham (2016).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.