Today is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the first Magna Carta. There was more than one “Magna Carta” from those olden times, with later versions being perhaps more legally significant—I once got to see an original King Edward Magna Carta owned privately by a collector in Australia—but the first one was the most politically important.
To contemporary readers, there are some odd parts to the first Magna Carta, such as:
(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.
There are several more like this, attesting to the calumny of Jews as less respectable moneylenders. Then there are these articles, certain to rankle feminists:
(8) No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of.
(54) No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.
But there are the beginnings of the recognizable principles of due process and individual rights:
(17) Ordinary lawsuits shall not follow the royal court around, but shall be held in a fixed place. . .
(30) No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent.
(31) Neither we nor any royal official will take wood for our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner.
(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
+ (39) 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 way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
+ (40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
* (52) To any man whom we have deprived or dispossessed of lands, castles, liberties, or rights, without the lawful judgment of his equals, we will at once restore these.
Here’s Russell Kirk on the Magna Carta, from his great book The Roots of American Order:
For the first stirrings of representation in national politics, we turn to the Great Charter, Magna Carta, extracted from King John by the barons of his realm, in the year 1215. John, though clever and an able soldier, was so grasping and evil a monarch that no later English king too the name of John. The king had arbitrarily imposed barons, knights, and burgesses, to extort large sums of money from them for carrying on his wars. With most of the barons in arms against him, and the menace of a French invasion imminent, John was forced to grant a guarantee of good royal conduct, which he signed at Runnymede, between London and Windsor. This we call Magna Carta
Most of the articles of this Great Charter have lost their significance with the passing of the feudal age. But a fundamental principle of Magna Carta, though not expressed in so many words in that document itself, endures to our day. This principle entered into the developing common law of the thirteenth century, and appeared in later royal charters and statutes. It became the rock upon which the English constitution was built. It is the principle of the supremacy of law: the idea that an enduring law exists, which all men must obey. The king himself is one of those men under the law. Along with this principle ran a corollary principle—that if the king breaks the law, and invades the right of his vassals, then barons and people may deprive him of his powers.
From this principle the whole English constitution—an “unwritten” constitution in the sense that it can be found in no single document—developed in time. This principle would be asserted by the Americans in the last quarter of the eighteenth century; it is the root of the Declaration of Independence.