Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

The Church and Magna Carta

Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

The Church and Magna Carta

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This Article describes the role the English Church played in the enforcement of Magna Carta. It does not enter into the vexed question of the Great Charter's sources.1 Nor will it take up the possibility raised by the scholarship of the late John Baldwin: that Archbishop Stephen Langton, a product of the Paris Schools, played a major part in the Charter's formulation, importing ideas drawn from the learning of the schools into its provisions.2 It also excludes coverage of the Charter's relation with individual religious freedom in the sense we know it today.3 These are important but different subjects. This Article deals instead about the clergy's reaction to and subsequent use of the Charter, the document as it existed in 1215,4 as it was amended in 1225,5 and as it was often reaffirmed by King and Parliament in later years.6

This subject has been touched, but only lightly, in the enormous amount of historical scholarship that has been devoted to Magna Carta.7 There is something to be added to it, but it seems sensible to begin with a summary of what has already been established in the large body of scholarly literature devoted to the subject. That summary can be brief. There are only two points related to the Article's theme-the church's place in the Charter's provisions-that are relevant. First, the great bulk of scholarly attention and analysis has been devoted to Clauses 18 and 63,9 which promised that the English church should enjoy its liberties unimpaired. This is the obvious place to start, and historians have looked unflinchingly at what the clauses accomplished in practice-very little.10 Second, after the withdrawal of its annulment by Pope Innocent III in 1215, the English clergy enthusiastically supported the Charter.11 This is certain. The bishops threatened with excommunication anyone, except the King, who violated its provisions.12 Thus, it was not just the secular barons who sought to secure its regular enforcement in the years after the events at Runnymede. The leaders of the church embraced it-though again, it is thought, without securing results that seem sufficient to have justified their enthusiasm.13

The first of these points begins with Clause 1 of the Charter and usually ends there. This Clause was the centerpiece of longstanding efforts to secure the rights claimed by the English clergy.14 Devoting special attention to this Clause seems reasonable. Designed immediately to secure the English church's freedom in the choice of its own bishops and abbots,15 the Clause might have extended further. Its wording certainly invited a fuller effect. However, the results of Clause 1 actually turned out to be quite disappointing in practice. Its effectiveness was undercut in fact by the power of kings and popes, who used the system of postulation and royal consultation to make an end run around the electoral rights of the English clerical electors that were supposedly established in the Charter.16 And as for other canonical liberties that might have been included within its guarantees, Clause 1 suffered from the "deplorably vague" character of its words.17 What did it actually guarantee beyond free elections? Opinions differed, and when later test cases came along-the Statute of Mortmain18 or the Statutes of Provisors19 and Praemunire,20 for example-the complaints of the clergy were disregarded. Because of the uncertainty of the exact meaning of Clause 1's words, these anti-clerical statutes could be said to lie outside the scope of the liberties guaranteed in Magna Carta.21 The new issues were simply not covered by the Clause's terms.

Despite these disappointments, the clergy did not cease to cite the Charter as a means of stating their own grievances. They did so loudly and repeatedly.22 The results, however, remained negligible. Only long established legal institutions like benefit of clergy in criminal cases survived.23 Freedom from taxation by the Crown did not.24 It is of course a mistake to paint the English bishops as helpless victims of royal aggression during the later Middle Ages. …

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