Magna Charta, the Great Charter, or the " Charter of Liberties," as it is commonly called by English writers, a constitutional instrument executed by King John of England, guaranteeing to the people in perpetuity the enjoyment of certain rights and privileges. Our word charter shows that the Latin charta, which meant simply paper, was at length used in the sense of a legal instrument, much as the word paper is sometimes used now. The word charter was however most commonly used to signify the written evidence of grants of land or of privileges from a feudal lord to an abbey or other religious house. From this it was extended to mean the records of all grants from feudal superiors to their subordinates, whether civil or ecclesiastical, and all agreements between them. The Great Charter is of this description, but is from the sovereign to the people. It begins: "John, by the grace of God, king," etc, to various dignitaries and officers, describing them not by name but by office, and " his other faith-ful subjects: Know ye, that we, for the health of our soul, etc, and by the advice of [sundry persons enumerated], have granted . . . and confirmed, for us and our heirs for ever." But while, in form, the charter was only a gift of certain rights and liberties by the king, it was a very different thing in fact.
The Anglo-Saxon institutions and usages, which were very favorable to liberty, had been almost suppressed by the Norman conquerors. The Norman kings, perhaps from the necessity which belonged to their position in England as sovereigns of an invading and conquering race, who needed to hold full and unchecked powers to enable them to preserve what they had won, had claimed and exercised an almost despotic authority. This began to alarm and perhaps to oppress the nobles; and after some struggles and conflicts the feudal possessors of the land of England succeeded in wresting from the feeble hands of John the important concessions contained in the Great Charter. These were very far, however, from being original concessions. There is scarcely one of them, of any importance, which may not be traced back in its principle, if not in its form, to Anglo-Saxon times. The nobles found that these usages, or principles, were all that they wanted to secure their own rights; and by demanding them only they secured the cooperation of a great part of the clergy and of all the cities and burgesses, and thus were enabled to gain such a superiority over the forces which John could bring to his aid, as to compel him to a peaceful acquiescence in their demands.
The preliminaries were agreed upon; the principal provisions of the charter were determined upon and ratified in a preliminary instrument by the king; and then he met the deputies of his nobles, and some of his clergy, at Runnymede, and there, on June 15, 1215, the charter was executed. It bears the seal of the king, and of a large number of nobles. Many copies were made at once, probably one for each county and diocese, and for some other bodies. Two of these originals, for all may be called so, are still preserved in the Cottonian library in the British museum; and there are copies extant made at later periods. Some doubt still rests upon the text, however, in passages of some importance. That printed at the beginning of the first volume of " Statutes at Large," in folio, is in fact a translation of the great charter of Henry III., which purported to be a confirmation of the charter of John. It was however duly enacted by the three estates of parliament, which the charter of John never was. Sir William Blackstone published an edition of it from the Cottonian original (Oxford, 1759). It was drawn up in the Latin language, and the translations into English vary considerably.
Thus the famous section 2D (sometimes numbered 45), which has been called the essence and glory of Magna Charta, runs thus: "No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or banished, or anyways injured, nor will we pass upon him, nor send upon him, unless by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." The phrase which we put in italics is an exact translation of nec super eum ibimus, nec super eum mittemus; but it has been much disputed what this means. In Coke's opinion it is, that no man shall be condemned in the court of king's bench, where the king is supposed to be present, nor before any commissioner or judge whom the king may depute or delegate to try him. The meaning of some other passages is equally obscure; but it is made so only by the lapse of time, and the disuse of phraseology once well understood. For the searching and thorough protection of right and suppression of all wrong afforded by the provisions of this remarkable instrument, and the singular force and precision of much of the language used, prove that those mailed barons had men among them, or at their call, who could employ in their service all the resources of the best cultivated intellects.
It was regarded at the time as of so great importance, that the barons compelled the king to put into their possession the city and tower of London, to be held by them for a certain time as a pledge for the due observance of the charter. They also required him to consent that 25 of their number should be chosen as " guardians of the liberties of the realm," with power to make war upon the king if he should violate the charter. In the subsequent reigns it was repeatedly confirmed, the sovereigns of England finding that when they were in peril and their subjects disposed to resist them, they could do nothing so popular as make a solemn confirmation of the "Charter of Liberties." This circumstance, and the traditional reverence for Magna Charta, together with its actual value, have caused some mistakes concerning it. The nobles who procured it are often called the patriots of their age, and are believed to have contended for the rights of the people. This is not quite true. Everything in the charter itself, and whatever is related concerning it in contemporaneous history, lead to the conclusion that the purpose of those who formed it was mainly to preserve the rights and privileges of their own order; and the provisions for the security of merchants, and of freemen generally, while dictated probably by some desire to secure their rights, was the readiest way to obtain that cooperation of various interests which was necessary to insure success.
In the loth century the villeins or serfs were probably the majority of the inhabitants of England; but the word villein occurs in Magna Charta but once. In one section it is declared that if a freeman be amerced for crime, it shall be "saving his contenement," by which word is meant the means of his livelihood, as the tools of a mechanic or the like; and a merchant "saving his merchandise;" and (in the next section) a villein "saving his wainage," and while these (his plough, wagons, and cattle) were certainly the tools of his trade, it is, from the character of the whole instrument, and of the times in which it was made, a not unreasonable inference that this single precaution for the benefit of the villein was at least recommended by the fact, that it preserved to him those implements without which he would be of little use to his lord. In truth, Magna Charta was intended mainly for the nobles and landholders of England; but it embraced in its terms all freemen. It was admirably contrived, and never lost its force; and as, in succeeding ages, villeinage gradually disappeared, and the serfs rose into the condition of freemen, they rose also into the protection and came within the benefit of Magna Charta. Hence there was a constantly increasing class who looked up to it with reverence and with confidence.
Its force was never lost by disuse, and its principles were never forgotten. It made the habeas corpus act and similar securities for personal rights and liberties possible; and in this way it may deserve the epithet which Mr. Hallam uses, when he calls it "the keystone of English liberty." - The general provisions of Magna Charta may be stated briefly. It confirmed the liberties of the church, and redressed some grievances incidental to feudal tenures. It prohibited unlawful amercements, distresses, or punishments, and restrained the royal prerogative of purveyance and preemption. It regulated forfeiture of lands, and prevented the grant of exclusive fisheries, or of new bridges injurious to a neighborhood. It established, or at least founded, the right of the owner of personal property to dispose of it by will, and it put the law of dower on the footing on which it has ever since stood. It protected merchants, required uniformity of weights and measures, and forbade alienation of lands in mortmain.
It guarded against delays and denials of justice, and brought the trial of issues within reach of all the freemen by means of assizes and circuits; and it asserted and confirmed those liberties of the city of London, and all other cities, boroughs, towns, and parts of the kingdom, from which, as from so many centres, political freedom afterward spread through the land. It protected every freeman from loss of life, liberty, or property, except by the judgment of his peers or the law of the land; and by it the king promised that " We will sell to no man, we will not deny or delay to any man, right or justice." Magna Charta is often appealed to in the discussion of constitutional questions in the United States, and its promise of protection by "the law of the land" is incorporated in some form in every American constitution.