Essay on Evaluate the Significance of Magna Carta in the Thirteenth Century

Published: 2021/11/11
Number of words: 1861

Magna Carta finds its significance within its context- the England of King John. Yet the charter should be regarded not as a rejection of the crown and the position of the king. Holt reminds us that the rebels in 1215 did not act out of republican sympathies but out of problems in the relationships between themselves and the king which rested on undefined ideas such as custom or homage. In later centuries Magna Carta has been seen as the first constitution , yet in the thirteenth century its significance was rooted in the clarification it provided for the rebels. It was significant because it dealt with the problems the barons were faced with and so was ‘a symbol of the rule of law against tyranny by the state’. Its memorialisation in later centuries is inconsequential. Magna Carta defined and emphasised ideas such as rule of law over that of will, justice and the concept of custom.

The significance of Magna Carta in the thirteenth century is evident in its reaction against what the contemporary, Ralph of Coggeshall, called the ‘evil customs’ of the Angevins. The significance of this can only be regarded as relevant within the situation that it was a reaction to. The medieval mind-set saw a distinction between rulings through the law, which was objective and thus right, and ruling by will, which was subjective and so open to corruption. John ruled by will and because of this was seen to be a tyrant. He generally ignored the law except when it benefited him, such as his right to seize property. Therefore John’s partial and inconsistent acceptance of the law created a problem for the people as he himself did not fit into it. He ‘was both above the law and below it. [posing] an insoluble problem.’ On this premise, Magna Carta was significant because it was a means to establish rule by law which would encompass the king. The Charter set out terms for the king. Yet it was not Magna Carta of 1215 which brought the king under the law, but the reissues of 1216 and 1225 which placed the sentiments of 1215 into law. It is arguable that the reissues constituted the significant factor in establishing the law as the only means by which to rule. Yet this does not prevent the Magna Carta from being significant as part of the discussion about law and will, as it provided the solution which would later be put into law.

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Closely tied with the questions about ruling through law or will were ideas about justice and the way this should be administered by the monarchy. In the years preceding Magna Carta, after 1204 John had made himself more available to hear cases and in doing so he effectively created a market for justice. Therefore, Magna Carta states that ‘To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.’ The significance of this is longer lasting because the sentiment was maintained in the 1225 reissue. Magna Carta also addresses the need for justice in more practical terms. Clause 17 addresses the establishment of a permanent bench, probably at Westminster, which John had discontinued in 1209 because of the costly nature of running two courts (one in Westminster and one that travelled around the country with him). Yet the next clause of the charter rectifies this fundamental problem by saying that there would be two justices and four knights in each shire to reduce the number of circuits the king had to make. This made it more cost effective, allowing for the bench at Westminster to be maintained as a permanent seat of justice. Here, the authors of the charter were not only identifying the problems that they saw with their monarchy but also rectifying them. This suggests that the charter was significant as a reform programme in the thirteenth century. After John’s death in 1216 the selling of justice ended. It is arguable that the Magna Carta contributed to this. However this should not be seen as absolute because the sale of justice continued to happen in the next century. Yet in the thirteenth century, at least, it is evidence that Magna Carta managed to manipulate the Angevins approach to government: especially as the clause was kept in the 1225 reissue which was the premise for Henry III’s reign. Clanchy argues that it was ‘John’s sudden death’ which ensured the survival of Magna Carta and thus its significance. Yet the turn of events allowed for reissues to be produced which consequentially allowed the Magna Carta to become a fundamental and significant part of the next king’s reign.

In both of these instances, emphasis is taken away from the individual personality of the king and put on the institution. It is evident that both the ‘rebellion and charter. were a commentary upon the whole system of Angevin government. not merely upon John’s’ . Thus the reforms made in Magna Carta, and its subsequent affirmations in the reissues, can be seen to have asserted where responsibility lay. ‘While early twelfth century legal collections treat royal power as personal and speak simply of the rights of the King, at the beginning of the next century men will talk of the rights of the Crown’ . Thus the movement in definition allows us to see Magna Carta as significant in challenging and confirming ideas about the kings and their rule. The seat of power stopped being thought of as the personality of the individual monarch and started being about the position of the monarch within the institution of the crown. The separation of the king and crown was also evident in the distinction made about land. There were de corona lands and the kings personal land. The problem that the barons faced in 1215 was that John did not recognise this distinction. He saw himself as having rights to both through the concept of custom. However the idea of custom was not defined and so was problematic. Miller points out that because there was no clear definition of law and custom the writers had to create it themselves. Holt reinforces this argument by stating that the authors had to create law and custom, elevating the Magna Carta to a ‘manifesto’ detailing what the baronage believed should be the custom of the land. This is significant in the thirteenth century because it challenged the vague concepts which allowed abuses on the part of the monarchy. Suddenly, the king was responsible to, as well as for, the people. His role in the realm was being defined.

Magna Carta could also be seen as significant because it went beyond the needs of its acclaimed authors, the baronage, to think about the needs of the entrie realm. Throughout the charter it talks about ‘all free men’ and ‘the community of the realm’. In doing this the charter can be seen to have been ‘increasing the significance of the freeman’ in the political and economic life of England. This can be seen as significant because it encompasses not only the barons but also citizens, clergy and statesmen. This correlates with Faulkner’s point in her work on the knights’ place in the rebellion of 1215. She argues that knights acted without the barons in the rebellion, demonstrating that Magna Carta was an embodiment of more than just the feudal barons needs, and that sometimes the knights took initiative to act without the baron’s commands. Clause 9 gives benefits to the knights and allows them to take over local government, giving them power within their shires. This suggests that Magna Carta was in the interests of more than just the baronage, redistributing power. However, this view of the significance of Magna Carta is stunted by the reissues in 1216 and 1225 which omit clauses beneficial to the knights. Although the knights were politicised by Magna Carta, ‘they were fighting for a mirage’ which made no significant changes to their place in society. Thus the significance of Magna Carta is stunted in this respect.

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Yet it is debatable whether the charters address to ‘all free men’ was as significant to the authors and authors of the reissues as it is to us today. To us we see liberties being granted to the masses, yet this seems unimportant and insignificant because it is omitted from the reissues as Faulkner has highlighted. In looking at the complaints of the baronage addressed in the charter, we can see that the charter was significant in rectifying these. This implies self-interest on the part of the barons, making the charter significant to only those it benefited. The charter addressed the problem of falling out of royal favour which could land a baron in great debt. It was difficult to stay in favour while refusing to pay for wars, such as Poitou, and the taxation for such wars was also crippling for the baronage. Thus clauses 12, 14 and 15 guard feudal rights regarding taxation. John also used trial by battle and outlawry as a means to control the baronage , and so the changes made to the administration of justice safeguarded the baronage against these methods. This leads us to suggest that the Magna Carta was a charter produced by ‘rejected men’. The significance, therefore, only extends as far as the upper classes whose complaints were addressed in the charter. This can also be seen in the reissue of 1225 which dropped some clauses to reinforce the Angevin regency in which members of the baronage would be regents. The reissue was significant because it assured the place of its authors, just as the Magna Carta protected its authors. But we cannot say that it was significant for every level of society in the thirteenth century.

To conclude, Magna Carta can be seen as significant in rectifying the concerns of its authors in the thirteenth century. It was a document which defined the role of the king and regulated the relationship between vassal and lord. As Holt argued, this significance was circumstantial as it happened in a period of heightening political questioning regarding the logic of the law and while the English legal system was acquiring some of its fundamental features. Yet the reaffirmation of these sentiments in the later reissues allowed the thinking of the 1215 authors to be carried into law. We should therefore look on it as a ‘manifesto’ in the thirteenth century, holding the greatest significance for its authors.


Magna Carta, Accessed 04/03/2013

Clanchy, M. T., England and its Rulers (Oxford, 1998). Faulkner, K., ‘The knights in the Magna Carta civil war’, in Brtinell, R., Frame, R., & Prestwich, M., (ed.), Thirteenth Century England VIII (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 1-12.

Helmholz, R., H., ‘Magna Carta and the ius commune’, University of Chicago Law Review, 66(1999), pp. 297-271.

Holt, J., Magna Carta (Cambridge, 1967).

Holt, J., Magna Carta and Medieval Government (London, 1985).

Holt, J., ‘The barons and the Great Charter’, English Historical Review, 70 (1955), pp. 1-24.

Jones, J. A. P., King John and Magna Carta (Harlow, 1971).

Miller, E., ‘The background of Magna Carta’, Past and Present, 23 (1962), pp. 72-83.

Turner, R., King John (London, 1994).

Turner, R., ‘King John’s concept of royal authority’, History of Political Thought, 17 (1996), pp. 157-178.

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