What does Magna Carta stand for?



The barons’ demands focused on matters such as the ownership and control of land, secure tenure, tax and laws about marriage and inheritance.  Indeed, nearly two-thirds of Magna Carta's 63 clauses deal directly with property rights, trade, taxation and compensation for previous unjust seizures of property. Even the opening clause (1), guaranteeing the freedom of the Church, is actually about the Church being able to control its own property and prevent the king raiding its revenues. (It is estimated that at one point, around one-seventh of Church revenue was being taken by King John.) And another clause (46) grants the same rights of ownership to nobles who have founded abbeys.


The Charter lays down various rules to limit the king’s power to extort money from his subjects by simply making up new laws and taxes, or reinterpreting existing provisions. It insists that the “law of the land” will bind the actions, not just of the barons, but of the bishops, the king’s officers and even the king himself. No longer should the administration be above the law, or able to make the law at its own discretion. Nor, indeed, be able to enforce the law at its own discretion.


Three clauses in the Charter stress its contractual status. Of these, two state its general aims: “keep all these liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably” (63), “Let all men of our kingdom… observe them similarly” (60). But how to enforce this contract and ensure that kings, who saw the law as theirs to make, should be bound by laws that are known, certain and arrived at by “the consent of the realm”? The Charter’s answer is its famous “security” clause (61), which establishes a council of 25 barons to police its provisions. The clause requires the king to force his officers (and oddly, himself) to obey the Charter; but the unwritten implication is that if the king violates the Charter, the barons would be within their rights to use force on him and his government, and bring him to trial under the normal “law of the land” by which debts were collected and malefactors were obliged to answer in court. It was a revolutionary idea, and one that John could never genuinely agree to. It did not succeed; and yet it declared the principle of accountability that we still regard as central to good governance today.