Magna Carta: The Great Charter of Liberties

On the bank of the River Thames in the year of 1215, a document was signed that kindled the recognition of justice in a society rife with inequity, The Magna Carta Libertatum (The Great Charter of Liberties) was an advancement in the reformation of the relationship between the monarchy and its people, which was well overdue, in the midst of more highly advanced charters that had been established generations before such as the Charter of Medina. Answering the plea of the rebellious barons, King John signed the charter to maintaion the peace and prevent the outbreak of civil war. Though unsuccessful, the very essence its inception lives on today, being echoed in the United States Declaration of Independence and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What began as a strenous effort to reform political and social structure in medieval England, lives on today as a statue of justice, liberty and freedom for the entire world.

The need for a charter in 1215 was aroused by the injustice imposed upon those below the Royal Clergy during the reign of King John; in what was known as The Feudal System. The hierarchy system organises society into different groups according to their corresponding roles in society, where King John and his clergy sat at the top reaping the fruits of the labour conducted by the peasants, who were at the bottom. But in the years preceding the signing of the Magna Carta, a series of battles took place that sparked the rebellion against King John. After the once English occupied Normandy was reconquered by France in 1204, King John suffered major losses and was forced to rely solely on English resources. Due to this, King John felt the need to increase revenue collections. King John was inclined to recapture the land of Normandy in France, but the Barons were against providing an army because they did not like the way King John took important decisions without consulting any of his contemporaries. Because of this, King John had to gather funds to support his efforts in regaining Normandy. To do this he:

  • Increased the fines people had to pay in the courts.
  • Charged rich widows as much as £3000 for the right to stay unmarried after their husbands died.
  • Increased the tax people paid to the King when they inherited the land of their parents. He charged one baron £6000 for land that was only earning £550 per year.
  • Massively increased taxes on barons who refused to provide soldiers for him. When one baron did not pay, he imprisoned him without trial until he paid.

This made King John extremely unpopular, especially to the barons. At the Battle of Bouvines where King John failed to reconquer Normandy, the money that he had accumulated for the war was wasted. King John then asked for more money from his barons for another future campaign to retake the French lands, but unsurprisingly they refused. In May 1215 forty barons renounced all feudal obligations to the crown and with support from the French and Scottish, they formed an army named ‘The Army of God’. On the 17th of May they captured London. It was through this very rebellion that King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta to provide rights to the people, especially the barons.

On top of this, King John had a disagreement with the Church over who was to be elected as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Pope Innocent III suggested that Stephen Langton should be elected as the new Archbishop however King John refused as it was normal custom for the King to appoint the Archbishop. This resulted in a papal interdict where many rites of the Church were made impermissible for King John. King John challenged the authority of Pope Innocent III in Rome which then resulted in the excommunication of King John from the Church. Out of anger, John then retaliated by taxing the church in England, confiscating its lands and forcing out many priests from their parishes. When we look back to the years preceding the signing of the Magna Carta, its historic significance is portrayed in the injustice that was imposed on many people at the time. Did this struggle result in a change that benefitted the rights of normal people?

No doubt, the luring of King John to sign the Magna Carta, after the barons forced him to meet at Runnymede, was unprecedented considering the status quo of power held by the crown for time immemorial. The fact was that after millennia, power that was once held by a central figurehead was now to be distributed. At the same time, the significance of the crown was to be undermined. On 12th of June 1215, King John gave in and compromised with the barons and accepted their plea of rights which is now known as the Magna Carta. The Charter consisted of sixtythree clauses, of which only three remain today. Despite being a compromise, it did consist of important clauses that brought about reformation within judicial and local administration. Of the three clauses that remain today; one defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third gives all English subjects the right to justice and a fair trial. The third says:

“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 other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

At the time of King John, the freemen formed a small proportion of England, so the above clause referred directly to them. Despite the fact that the Magna Carta catered for the demands of the barons, a significant amount of it dealt with the freemen, which included the barons, knights and the free peasantry.

The distinction between free and the unfree peasantry (the villeins) was that a free man could leave his manor, buy and sell land, own goods and possessions. Free men were also allowed access to the royal courts, which offered them greater protection for their rights and property. However, the majority of society consisted of the villeins. They lacked the rights of the freemen, but due to the Magna Carta, their fines were limited so that they were not deprived of livelihood. Royal officials were also prohibited from seizing their goods without payment and from forcing them to carry out bridge building and riverbank repairs. Regardless of the promising sixty-three clauses that the Magna Carta began with, in the following months and years the statute of the Charter did not meet the expectations it held on the 15th of June.

Despite the significance of the Magna Carta, it was doomed to fail amidst the continued clash between the crown and the barons. Clause sixty-one of the original Magna Carta stated that should King John defy the charter at any time, an established board of barons had the right to overthrow him. King John knew the threat this had on his reign, and despite the differences that they had between them, the Pope gave his full support on the premise that the authority of the church is also being threatened by the clause. The barons recognised the upper hand of the King. Undeterred by this, they continued with their attempt to overthrow the crown. They did this by pledging their support for Prince Louis of France, and as a result of this Britain entered a civil war called ‘The First Barons’ War’.

Due to the death of King John after contracting dysentery on the night of 18th October 1216, the advantage held by the French dissipated. The son of King John was crowned as King Henry III (pictured). After the Magna Carta was reissued by King Henry III on 12th November 1216; to recall the men to the allegiance to their rightful king, the rebels who were at first supporting Prince Louis to the crown of England, flocked to the support of King Henry. The Civil War that was an arbitration of baronial rights turned into a war front to protect England from foreign invasion. Louis was defeated and was forced to withdraw in 1217. The 1216 charter was considerably shorter than its predecessor—forty-two clauses versus sixty-three in the 1215 document— because the council had omitted clauses dealing with purely temporary and political issues as well as those that could limit its own power to raise money or forces to carry on the war.

The Church lost its specific guarantee of free election to office while keeping a general promise of freedom. Even in that moment of danger, the council did not forget one main purpose of the charter; to provide a definitive statement of feudal law. It tried to address points in doubt, such as specific matters of inheritance law. When the charter was reissued for the second time in the autumn of 1217, the council had reconsidered it clause by clause. They made further verbal changes for the sake of clarity and accuracy.

They modified the promise of assize justices visiting every shire four times a year to the more practical suggestion of an annual visit. More difficult cases would be heard by the bench judges. A widow’s rights in issues of inheritance were more clearly set out.

Truth be told, the original Magna Carta bears mostly symbolic significance today, and many of its clauses were only catered for those who demanded King John to restrain some power. The majority of the denizens of medieval England were peasants who owned no land, so the clauses did not instigate a reformation in their lives. Despite the effect it has had on modern day constitutions such as the ‘Declaration of Independence’, the charter was at best a wake-up call for future societies to learn from.

Centuries before the signing of the Magna Carta, in the deserts of Arabia, a constitution was formed out of love, compassion and harmony by the Holy Prophet (sa). In the year 622, the city of Medina received the Holy Prophet (sa) after his migration from Mecca due to persecution. The Constitution of Medina is recognised as an exemplar of mankind’s written constitutions. At the time, Medina was a pluralistic society consisting of twelve Arab tribes and ten Jewish tribes. Due to the many forces fighting for authority, Medina was in a state of anarchy, and thus there was a critical need for peace. Due to the unmatched qualities of the Holy Prophet (sa), he was requested to head the state of Medina. When the Holy Prophet (sa) became the recognised head he brought some pressing needs to light, such as determining the rights and responsibilities of the local population as well as the immigrants from Mecca, forging agreements between the non-Muslim population of Medina with the Jews which initiated peace and harmony, a strategy was created to defend Medina against any future invasions and employment for immigrants was made easier through increasing the resources available for them. The Charter includes forty-seven clauses which initiated peace between all of the cultures and beliefs which were present in Medina at the time.

In a time where most of Arabia was indulged in utter repugnance, a shining star that was the Holy Prophet (sa) brought about a revolutionary change to constitutional history, where the inclusion of all people’s rights, despite creed, colour or race, is de facto the most complete charter in comparison to the Magna Carta and other charters throughout history. The Magna Carta being forged by the people in retaliation to a tyrannical and autocratic king, it is quite easy to draw the first comparison to the Constitution of Medina because the Holy Prophet (sa) formed this treaty out of wisdom and divine providence.

The treaty in Medina incorporated all of the denizens of Medina and catered for everyone’s needs. King John had signed the Magna Carta out of fear of a possible civil war, which still took place in the First Barons’ War. In Article 19 of the treaty, a levy by way of public contribution was introduced where Muslims and Jews were due to pay separately. The money collected was for the general goal of improving the new community. In doing so, the contractual solidarity between the confederates was strengthened because the almsgiving emphasised the need for good relations and mutual aid and assistance. This shows that the incentive for paying money in accordance with the treaty was for the common good of every confederate, even the ones who were non-Muslims, as opposed to the money that King John demanded, which resulted in his downfall in the civil war after the Magna Carta was signed. Furthermore, Article 23 of the Constitution of Medina reaffirms the divine authority of the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", other than some opposition from the non-believers on the basis of prophetic truth, the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" was well known for his honesty and trustworthiness

The aforementioned examples show how the Constitution of Medina was a treaty based on trust, justice and equality, whereas the Magna Carta was a treaty formed to counter the injustice performed by the king which then led to the downfall of the Magna Carta. As the barons did not trust King John due to the irresponsible way in which he used tax money for personal benefit, this called for the addition of Clause 61 as mentioned earlier in the article; this eventually led to the civil war as there was still a clash of views between King John and his barons. Considering that the prerequisite for a successful treaty in which all confederates abide by its regulations is trust, the Holy Prophet of Islam saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" was recognised as a human who embodies divine providence since his childhood. He was known by his contemporaries as ‘Sadiq’ and ‘Ameen’. Thus, the wisdom prevalent in the Constitution of Medina is quite clearly in accordance with the perfect teachings of Islam. The treaty at Medina set the path for equality, justice and peace for all ages to come. The Magna Carta, though an unsuccessful venture from its inception, still represents what democracy means in the 21st century and has inspired those people who were oppressed by other tyrannical rulers. Having said this, the Magna Carta sits in the shadow of the Constitution of Medina simply because it was Divinely guided and its objectives were non-egoistic. And as every foundation that was paved for the success of Islam is Divinely guided, the Charter of Medina is no exception because as one of the most comprehensive and all-encompassing official constitutions of the world, it has influenced many succeeding charters throughout history. In fact, the French Constitution, the British Parliament’s legislation, the American Declaration of Independence and the UN Charter on Human Rights, all praised as lifting mankind out of ignorance and disgrace, all possess the shining light that emanated from the Constitution of Medina.


This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Hazeem Arif

Hazeem Arif

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