Magna Carta:
The Law Is King

By Travis Copeland

The supremacy of law over arbitrary government is not guaranteed by civilization, but cost immense effort to obtain.

The Magna Carta (or “Great Charter”) of 1215 is one of the most significant political documents in world history. Not only did it establish that the English monarch was subject to law, paving the way for limited monarchy in England, but it helped to set down the enduring and supreme authority of law over every member of a commonwealth, including the sovereign. As with the United States Constitution, the English Bill of Rights, or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Magna Carta is a product of great political turmoil within the nation; it is a reaction to tyranny. Law, declares the Magna Carta—as do all truly good political documents—should govern a nation, not the desires of any one man. In particular, the Great Charter was written to oppose and curtail the powers of English King John, the villain of the tales of Robin Hood.

The historical John was the youngest of five sons. He was born in 1166 to King Henry II of the House of Angevin, a branch of the Plantagenet dynasty going back to the Norman Conquest. The law of primogeniture* had not yet been established in England; all heirs were chosen from the royal house, but many different grounds could be advanced for this or that choice. However, three of John’s brothers predeceased him, and he was ultimately appointed the heir to his elder brother Richard in the early 1190s.

Having secured his position as heir, John attempted to usurp the crown in 1193, while King Richard I (also known as “the Lionheart”) was in the Holy Land participating in the Third Crusade. Despite being forced to surrender the throne, surprisingly, John was spared and even maintained his place in the line of succession. Upon his brother’s death in 1199, John’s ambition was at last fulfilled—but threats plagued his reign, from within and without. Abroad, France had taken territory from England on the Continent. King John sought to recover his losses by making war on France, but attempts to retake Brittany only weakened his army.

Domestically, the succession was a problem for John. His nephew Arthur was next in line for the throne; he was the son of John’s deceased but, importantly, elder brother Geoffrey, making John’s position somewhat precarious. Moreover, Arthur’s claim had long been supported by the king of France. John had Arthur executed in 1203, tightening his grip on power.

To none will we sell, to none deny or delay, right or justice.

Magna Carta, §40

The appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest church office in England, became a point of tension between the pope (specifically, Innocent III, quite a formidable personality) and the king as well. Worse still, in attempts to secure power, John’s government began to accrue sizable debt. Between 1204 and 1214, he repeatedly increased taxes and levies, and the English gentry became increasingly hostile to his reign. An assassination attempt and an armed rebellion pushed King John to begin to recruit mercenaries from France.

With rebels marching on Exeter, London, and several other large English towns, King John agreed to meet them peacefully at Runnymede, southwest of London, in June 1215. Demands were laid out by the barons in what is now called the Magna Carta. The Charter addressed immediate abuses, as it sought to protect clergy and nobility; but it also set-down an enduring and overarching political philosophy that curtailed the king’s power. The Magna Carta required John to submit to rule of law, or else have his land and power confiscated by the barons. It upheld his enduring submission to the Charter and set down principles for governing England, both spiritually and temporally. It particularly enumerated the following as sacrosanct:

  • The right to a fair trial
  • Restrictions against excessive or unwarranted taxation
  • The property rights of land-owning widows, and their freedom of choice in remarriage
  • The right to own and inherit property without state confiscation

These, and all the Charter’s provisions, were headed by and summarized in the principle that the law, not the king, was the supreme authority of the realm. This was expressed in the compact Latin formula lex rex: “the law is king.”

Magna Carta would falter, and needed repeated editions (including amendments the very next year). Nonetheless, it retained its supreme status and set precedents for English common law, constitutional law, and limited monarchy. In these ways, it should be credited as the basis for the English Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States—perhaps even for the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. Magna Carta still stands, some eight hundred years later, as a bulwark of sound governance affirming individual rights and liberties, against the aggressions of a single ruler without respect for the rule of law.

*Many monarchies (though not all) have a hereditary line of succession to the crown. Primogeniture means that the eldest child inherits the crown, but this is often qualified in some way: for instance, male-preference primogeniturein which all the monarch’s sons (and their sons) take precedence over any daughters in the line of successionis the form we tend to be familiar with, and was the law in England for centuries. On the other hand, absolute primogeniture makes the eldest child the heir regardless of sex, and has become the law in most European countries which remain monarchies.

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Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might find more of the Medieval entries on our Author Bank interesting, like St. Benedict, The Thousand and One Nights, and Lady Julian of Norwich; you might also enjoy our series on the history of ideas, from the virtue of courage to the discipline of medicine to, of course, the idea of knowledge itself. And don’t miss out on our podcast, Anchored.

Published on 24th October, 2022. Page image of a twelfth-century illumination of King Henry II (“Curtmantle”) and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, the parents of Kings Richard I and John.

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