The Magna Carta Betrayed?

King John of England approving the Magna Carta in 1215; illustration by John Leech, 1875
Everett Collection
King John of England approving the Magna Carta in 1215; illustration by John Leech, 1875

The year 2015 marked the eight hundredth anniversary of one of the most celebrated, and least read, of the world’s legal texts: the Magna Carta. The great twentieth-century British jurist Lord Denning described the Magna Carta as “the greatest constitutional document of all times—the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.” But it was not always held in such high repute. Pope Innocent III, in annulling the Magna Carta just a couple of months after it was promulgated (though it was later reinstated), declared that the charter was “not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust.” And as a peace treaty between King John and certain rebel barons—which was its purpose—it was something of a flop, with the rebellion continuing even after John’s death in 1216.

The Magna Carta was reputedly drafted by Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, and while his authorship has been called into question regarding the overall document, it seems likely he was responsible for the very first operative clause or “chapter.”1 That chapter affirms that “the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.” However, while Chapter 1 might be read as a statement of religious freedom, this does not appear to have been the chief concern of the barons who negotiated the charter: for what follows, in Chapters 2–8, are a series of protections for the barons’ widows and heirs against attempts by King John to seize the barons’ lands and properties upon their deaths. Given what one suspects was the modest life expectancy of the average English baron in those days, it was probably these provisions that were uppermost in the barons’ minds.

But what if the baron died while still indebted to those medieval moneylenders, the Jews? Chapters 10 and 11 provide protection for a baron’s wife and children against having to pay interest for a time on debts owed to Jews (though in Chapter 11 also to others). It is remarkable, and disappointing, that so little attention has been paid by subsequent commentators to these discriminatory and rather cavalierly derogatory chapters.2 In fairness, however, the real purpose of these clauses was, as indicated, to prevent a baron’s property from falling into the hands of the king after the baron’s death. This was because Jews in medieval England were forbidden to own property. Indeed, Jews themselves were considered to be a form of property: “chattels” belonging to the king. Thus, if a baron or his heirs defaulted on a debt by not paying interest, the property securing the debt became the property of the king.

For this reason, John viewed the Jews…

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