Academic journal article Nottingham Law Journal

Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest, and the Origin of the Jury System

Academic journal article Nottingham Law Journal

Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest, and the Origin of the Jury System

Article excerpt


In this year celebrating the 800th anniversary of the enactment of the Great Charter, Magna Carta, (1) it is worth examining the document itself and its accompanying charter, the Charter of the Forest. Many persons are aware that the first Charter, Magna Carta (dated 1215), established the belief of a right to a trial by one's peers, i.e. the petit jury. (2) The Forest Charter (dated 1217) is a document few have heard about, although to Englishmen of the era, it was far more important to daily life. In truth, the two Charters jointly established limitation on the powers of the King, firmly grounding the idea of the rule of law in English jurisprudence.

By King John's time the evils of the forest laws, the exactions and hardships of the feudal system resulted in many insurrections of the barons. The interests of the people and the barons were drawn into the closest harmony. Both, Hodgson (3) says, suffered from arbitrary and excessive taxation, from delay of justice, exactions of military service, and outrages of every kind, both public and domestic.

"Magna Carta was wrested from a King who was a craven and a dastard as well as a tyrant, by his nobles and barons". (4) Writers of the period denounced King John. For example, Green introduces the story of his treachery, ingratitude and perfidy, of his cruelties and of his cowardice and superstition, with the words, "Foul as it is, Hell is defiled by the fouler presence of John." (5)

Nor can much good be said about the nobles either. The ultimate property of all lands and a considerable share of the present profits were vested in the King or by him granted out to his Norman favorites, who by a gradual progression of slavery were absolute vassals to the Crown and as absolute tyrants to the commons. Forfeitures, talliages, aids and fines were frequently extorted from pillaged landholders. (6)


At that time "The nation consisted of ... clergy, the lawyers, the barons, the knights or soldiery, and the burghers or inferior tradesmen, who, from their insignificance, retained some points ... of their ancient freedom. All the rest were villeins or bondmen". (7) One estimate is that about half of the individuals in England at the time were serfs who were not covered by the Charter at all.

How then did a Great Charter emerge from such a collectivity? King John, was certainly coerced into signing the Magna Carta by force of arms. (8) However, threats from the clergy of eternal damnation also played a part in his eventual agreement. (9) Both King John and the nobles appealed for aid from the Pope during the course of the dispute.

It would seem that the barons who impelled John to come to Runnymede were by no means 'disinterested protectors of the common good.' (10) They had a great number of grievances with both King John and his predecessors. Blackstone indicates that the barons assembled with "a numerous army of their dependents, among whom were reckoned no less than two thousand knights ... (11)

Magna Carta must be seen as an attempt at a peace treaty between the barons and the crown, but a peace treaty that was quickly repudiated by the king for within ten weeks King John had persuaded the Pope to declare the Charter null and void, threatening to excommunicate anyone who observed it and or tried to enforce its provisions. Civil war broke out once again, only culminating after King John died and the subsequent defeat of the rebels. That happened, however, after the new King's guardians took the unexpected move of reissuing the Charter, wrong-footing the barons, some of whom crossed over to the King's side. This civil war culminated in the siege and battle of Lincoln in May 1217 when many of the rebels were captured.

It is the frequent reissuing of Magna Carta and its companion Charter of the Forest that established its importance as a document curtailing the power of the King. …

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