The Magna Carta, the Great Courts, and the Provisions of Oxford

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

There were no checks on a monarchy in weak European kingdoms like France. In England, because the English monarchy was so powerful in high medieval Europe, institutions were developed to act as a check upon that authority, such as the Magna Carta and the Parliament.

King John of England in battle with the Francs (left)
King John Lackland’s defeat at the hands of the French lost the English barons their European holdings, prompting them to revolt against John. (Image: Chroniques de Saint-Denis/Public domain)

The Revolt of the Barons

After the defeat at the hands of the French, King John Lackland simply refused to continue the invasion. This angered the English barons who joined hands with Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was still bitter about his treatment by John Lackland.

They banded together and rebelled against John Lackland in 1215. They captured London, and forced him to accept the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter.

The Provisions of the Magna Carta

A silver King John penny
A lot of the the provisions of the Magna Carta were created to limit how much revenue King John Lackland was raising. (Image: Rasiel Suarez — anonymous 13th coin minter/Public domain)

The Magna Carta consisted of 63 different clauses, most of which had purely temporary significance, and related very much to 13th-century situations.

The articles of the Magna Carta forced the king to renounce certain royal taxes that were unpopular. They forced John Lackland to reduce the amount of land that was considered to be royal hunting grounds and, therefore, off-limits to everyone else.

Perhaps the most important article in the Magna Carta was Article 39. Article 39 was important because it limited opportunities for kings to act arbitrarily. Article 39 reads as follows:

No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.

Article 39 of the Magna Carta bound the king to follow certain judicial procedures, and to follow the law when judging individuals. In this sense, it is true that the Magna Carta put England on the path toward constitutional monarchy, in which there are formal legal restraints upon the royal will.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Acceptance of the Magna Carta

An illustration shown King John signing the Great Charter or Magna Carter
Getting King John to agree to the terms of the Magna Carta was only the first step toward limiting the authoritarian powers of the English King. (Image: James William Edmund Doyle/Public domain)

John had no intention of abiding by the Magna Carta. It had been extorted from him under duress. As soon as he was free from the clutches of his barons, he renounced the document, but John died the very next year, in 1216. However, his successor, Henry III, who was a minor when he acceded to the throne, accepted the Magna Carta, and he had a very long reign, from 1216 all the way to 1272.

But the royal acceptance of the Magna Carta did not put an end to disputes between English aristocrats and the kings of England. There would be subsequent disputes in the 13th century, disputes that led to documents that are not as famous as the Magna Carta, but are just as important in shaping the English government.

Learn more about where the term “Middle Ages” comes from.

Great Courts and the English Kings

Even before the period of the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon kings of England would often reach important decisions only after consulting their court, and there were different kinds of courts that the kings could hold. There was a regular court that was more or less in permanent session and followed the kings on their travels throughout their kingdom.

But for very important decisions, it was customary for kings to hold a “great court” at certain points of the year, perhaps at Christmas or at Easter time.

On these great ceremonial occasions, kings would issue invitations to whomever was of importance in the kingdom, calling them to court so that they could advise him on the matter at hand. It was out of these occasionally summoned “great councils” that the English Parliament was going to emerge.

During the period after Magna Carta had been accepted, after 1215, English kings began to include townspeople in their great councils. These great councils thus became more representative than they had been previously.

Instead of limiting themselves to important barons and Church officials, now commoners began to participate in great councils as well.

However, kings also began to summon great councils only when they wanted money from people, and they consulted them less frequently on matters of importance. Henry III was notorious for not vetting important issues with his great councils, and simply asking them for permission to institute new taxes within the kingdom.

Now, those who attended the great councils became resentful of the fact that their role was, increasingly, simply to rubber stamp royal demands for money, without having a say in what that money should be used for. Therefore, they decided that it would be necessary to impose even stronger limitations on kings.

Learn more about the diminishing of the rights of lords over the peasants.

Provisions of Oxford

In 1258, English barons imposed upon King Henry III a set of limitations known as the Provisions of Oxford. The Provisions of Oxford would give the Parliament an almost-permanent place in subsequent English political history.

The Provisions of Oxford went far beyond the Magna Carta in forcing kings to govern in consultation with their subjects. Great councils, which by now were called “parliaments”, were to be assembled three times a year by the kings, so that there was no possibility of not summoning them and simply bypassing the parliaments. Kings were also required to run important matters by the Parliament, in addition to simply asking these frequently meeting parliaments for money.

Now, English kings did not always abide by the Provisions of Oxford, and the frequency with which the Parliament met, and whether it met at all, was a hot issue for centuries to come.

The English Parliament had a long way to go in terms of its development after the Provisions of Oxford. Its composition was still exceedingly fluid, and the division into Lords and Commons was a 14th-century phenomenon. Nonetheless, from the Provisions of Oxford onward, the Parliament occupied an important place in the history of medieval England.

Common Questions about the Magna Carta

Q. Why did John Lackland’s barons rebel against him?

When John Lackland gave up the campaign against the French king, the barons lost their lands in Europe. So, they rebelled against John and forced him to accept the Magna Carta.

Q. What were the clauses of the Magna Carta related to?

The clauses of the Magna Carta were mostly related to specific contemporary issues of the 13th century. For example, some articles forced the king to renounce certain unpopular royal taxes. They forced John Lackland to reduce the amount of land that was royal hunting grounds, and therefore, off-limits to everyone else.

Q. Why is Article 39 considered to be the most important article in the Magna Carta?

Article 39 of the Magna Carta limited opportunities for kings to act arbitrarily. In part, the article states: “No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed… unless by legal judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.” This was to ensure that the king could not arbitrarily persecute any person.

Q. What were the Provisions of Oxford?

The Provisions of Oxford were a set of rules imposed upon the king to enforce consultation with the subjects. Great councils, which by now were called “parliaments”, were to be assembled three times a year by the kings, so that there was no possibility of bypassing them. Kings were also required to run important matters by the Parliament, rather than only asking these frequently meeting parliaments for money.

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