“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”
—Clause 39 of the Magna Carta
King John II of England ascended to the throne in 1199 after a tumultuous accession war with his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, and Arthur’s ally Phillip II of France. King John inherited the Angevin Empire, consisting of England, most of Wales and Ireland, and a large swathe of France stretching south to Toulouse and Aquitaine. Yet this empire was crumbling. It is in this context that one of the greatest legal documents in the world was written. The Magna Carta was intended to guarantee the rights of several rebellious barons, but its repercussions stretch to modern discussions of rights, representation, and power.
As we approach the 800th anniversary, we’ve gathered resources from across Oxford University Press, a brief selection of which are offered below.
The Magna Carta on Oxford Constitutional Law
The Magna Carta is a cornerstone of law and liberty in Western society. Rights that many often take for granted today originated with that ink and paper. For example, clauses 20 and 21 stipulate that punishment meted out to criminals should only be in proportion to the original offence. As a whole, the Magna Carta document also provides a fascinating insight into the seemingly-obscure gripes and grievances suffered by the English 800 years ago. Clause 23, for example, states that nobody should be forced to build a bridge over a river.
The Magna Carta key players on Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online
The people who make up the story of the Magna Carta are a diverse and eccentric cast. King John II – who squeezed as much money out of England as he could, and made numerous enemies in the process – is well known. Robert Fitzwalter, the leader of the rebellious barons, and the scholarly Archbishop Stephen Langton, who was “probably the mind responsible for the attempt to set down in writing what the barons wanted,” played vital roles in the signing of the historic document.
‘The Rebellion’ in The Northerners: A Study in the Reign of King John
What led a handful of barons in Northern England to take up arms against the English monarch? And how was it that this rebellion took John almost completely by surprise? This chapter paints a fascinating picture of the run-up to the now-famous rebellion, the ensuing skirmishes, and how the barons eventually succeeded in getting King John into the negotiations which would lead to his signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede.
‘The Enforcers of the Magna Carta’ on Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online
“Many were … united in a deep hatred of John, and all in their resolution to resist him by force if need be.” Who exactly were the barons who stood united behind Robert Fitzwalter? This essay brings to life the key players from within the rebel faction who were trusted with the enforcement of the terms of the Magna Carta, for, as any lawyer will tell you, it is one thing to pass a law, but quite another to enforce it.
‘Magna Carta’ in The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History
Copied painstakingly by hand in the last quarter of the thirteenth century into manuscripts and statutes across England, the Magna Carta is the earliest-known legislative text cited by English common law professionals. Here, the history of the document is traced, including how various amendments were added and clauses taken away, and how it became an integral part of the country’s legal culture.
‘The Evolution of Constitutional Monarchy’ in The Monarchy and the Constitution
The English monarchy is one of the world’s oldest constitutional monarchies and Vernon Bogdanor traces the evolution of this 1000-year-old institution, taking into account the influence of the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the monarchy under Queen Victoria.
‘Magna Carta’ in Shaping the Common Law: From Glanvill to Hale, 1188-1688
The United States has perhaps the most famous constitution in the world of any modern nation, and Magna Carta has had a profound influence on the American legal and constitutional tradition. So much so, in fact, that the Kennedy Foundation opened a memorial at Runnymede celebrating the debt America owes to the document. In this chapter, the fascinating journey of England’s arguably most-important export in America is told – from the English colonies to the seat of American government.
What resources do you recommend for learning more about this historic document? Let us know in the comments below.
Featured image: King John of England, 1167-1216. Illuminated manuscript, De Rege Johanne, 1300-1400. MS Cott. Claud DII, folio 116, British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.