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Key clauses of Magna Carta

Four of Magna Carta’s clauses are still part of English law today.

Clause 1

FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church's elections - a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it - and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity.“

The first clause of Magna Carta guarantees the freedom of the English Church. This clause was specifically included to stop the king from interfering in what the Church did, and gave the Church the right to elect its own leaders, rather than have them chosen by the king. King John and the Pope had fallen out over the choice of the Archbishop of Canterbury before Magna Carta, and this first clause was intended to ensure that these problems did not happen again.

The fact that this is the first clause is a reminder of the important part that the Church played in bringing Magna Carta about. It is also the reason that English Cathedrals guarded Magna Carta so carefully over the centuries.  The last section of Magna Carta mentions the freedom of the Church again, just as a reminder of what had been agreed.

Clause 13

“The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water. We also will and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall enjoy all their liberties and free customs.”

This clause is the most surprising of the four clauses that are still part of the law. It was intended to ensure that the rights that London and other cities and towns had been granted were no longer taken away by the corruption of King John’s reign. One of the rights that was important to the city of London was the right to choose its own mayor, for example. Like the English Church, the people of England wanted to make sure that it wasn’t the king that got to decide everything that was important.

Clause 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.“

This clause established the idea that people could only be judged according to the law, and that even the king himself had to follow the law. King John had previously acted as if the law did not apply to him. The other thing that is important about this clause is that it stipulates that a person should be judged by a group of their equals (not by the king or his men). The jury system that still exists in Britain today is a continuation of the idea put forward in this clause.

Clause 40

“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

This is one of the shortest, most significant and most timeless clauses of Magna Carta. It ensures that nobody will be deprived of their rights, or have to pay for their rights, or be made to suffer by waiting for their rights. It was a response to the fact that King John was very corrupt and frequently demanded bribes from his subjects. The delay of justice is still a big problem in many places of the world today – making innocent people wait for years until a court hears their case, for example.

 

There are other clauses that are no longer part of English Law today but were a very significant part of Magna Carta. These include:

Clause 12

“No 'scutage' or 'aid' may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable 'aid' may be levied. 'Aids' from the city of London are to be treated similarly.“

This clause meant that the king could not demand new taxes without first obtaining the approval of the key people in his kingdom. It led to the idea of parliament, (formally established in England 50 years later). Parliament comes from the French word parler, to speak or to converse.

The USA used this clause to justify independence from Britain in 1776. The American people objected to being asked to pay taxes to Britain without having representation in Parliament.

Clause 61, also known as the security clause

“….We give and grant to the barons the following security: The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter. If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us - or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice - to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon.”

This clause is probably the most radical clause in Magna Carta. It gave the barons the right form a committee of 25 who would monitor the king and take action against him if he failed to honour his agreement to them and to the freemen of his kingdom. The king hated this clause most of all. 

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