The Magna Carta and the creation of in England's Parliamentby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Explain the loss of power of the King through the Magna Carta and the creation of England's Parliament
Near the end of the Middle Ages, the role of government in England underwent many changes. From the Magna Carta to the creation of the English Parliament, England laid the foundation for representative government and regulated sovereignty. The Magna Carta clearly defined the ancient rights and privileges of the people 1. It established the principle that the king no longer had absolute control, and prevented English rulers from taking advantage of their subjects. Later, England would institute a Parliament to allow British nobles the opportunity to voice their opinions in political matters. This entire process moved the world one step closer to the types of governments that are seen today.
England first began moving toward a constitutional regime during the reign of Henry II, the great-grandson of William the Conqueror. Henry II, despite the fact that he was more French than English, began the Plantagenet line of English kings in 1154 when he became king. He was well known and appreciated for his impartiality in the justice system. Yet, Henry II sought to improve the judicial system, as the laws of the land did not apply evenly to everyone at the time. In some cases, "justice was metered out by the baron's men in the most barbaric ways. The suspect was proven guilty or innocent by immersing a bandaged hand into boiling water for some minutes. The man was innocent if when the bandages were taken off he had no blisters!" 2 This system of justice was in stark contrast to the more civilized trial proceedings given to those who were higher in rank.
Much of this imbalance of how justice was dealt out stemmed from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, anyone could become a clergyman by simply memorizing a certain passage in the Bible. Many people did so to avoid the harsher English courts in favour of the more lenient Church courts. Because the Church disapproved of bloodshed, they would never sentence a clergyman to execution, even if he committed the most horrible crime! Henry II wanted to end the abuses of the clergy and to distance himself from the Church in Rome. He was displeased with this manner of "justice"; he wanted everyone to be treated equally. During his reign, he established trial by jury, a process very similar to the modern day "grand jury" system used in the U.S. Eventually, the judges began to hand out identical sentences to those who had committed the same crime. Through this, Henry developed "the common law", which would subject all Englishmen under the same law 3. However, the king still had the ultimate and absolute power in England, as he was not yet under the English law.
Henry II's subjects respected their king's leadership, as he was a very strong king throughout his reign. When he died in 1189, many people mourned the loss of this revered man. Henry II was succeeded by his son Richard I, often well known for his love of Crusades to the Holy Land 4. Because of his feats, he was called Richard the Lion-Hearted. Yet, despite his courageous military attributes, Richard I was not as strong in leadership as his father, since the former lived in England only six months out of his ten years as king 5. In fact, "Richard nearly bankrupted England by selling property and imposing taxes to finance his expedition." 6 Some nobles took advantage of Richard's absence, but the English government remained in steady control under two of his ministers. This efficient manner of management was thanks to the administrative system set up by Henry II and extended by the two ministers, William of Longchamp and Hubert Walter 7. However, despite the reliable supervision provided by the ministers, they could not prevent some rebels from uprising against the king. When Richard was killed during a siege against a French city, this resulted in his wicked brother, John, becoming England's next king.
In reality, it was John who had led the rebellion against his own brother. When John became king, he unleashed his evil ways upon the kingdom. Contrary to the morals by which Richard followed, John chose the exact opposite path. "Evil people love to harm others; their neighbours get no mercy from them." 8 A sad example of this Bible verse, this selfish, cruel, and deceptive man continued his evil ways throughout his seventeen-year dominion. In fact, John had such a bad reputation that "after his reign, Englishmen swore they would never again have a king by that name". 9 In fact, this is the same John that is mentioned in Robin Hood, which told the story of an outlaw who "robbed from the rich and gave to the poor." Indeed, John taxed his subjects heavily to fund his own interests and goals. However, Proverbs 5:22 tells us that "the evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast." John became ensnared in his own sins and was plagued by failure after failure. Furthermore, he considered himself above the common law, ignoring the justice system set up by his grandfather years prior. As the people became disgruntled and upset with their king, a group of English noblemen devised a declaration that would place John under the common law of England.
On June 15, 1215, the nobles met John at Runnymede, near London, and forced him to sign their document containing sixty-three articles, which became recognized as the Magna Carta. It became an important component to developing the English constitution. For the first time in English history, the king was bound to the law. In its importance, "the Magna Carta established several precedents of freedom." 10 It prevented the king from increasing taxes without consent of a council of nobles and gave back the common serf the right to "trial by jury". From then on, everyone lived under the same laws. The Magna Carta's primary purpose was "to force King John to recognize the supremacy of ancient liberties, to limit his ability to raise funds, and to reassert the principle of 'due process'". In John's extreme displeasure with this new Charter, he "appealed to the pope, promising to become his vassal." 11 Much to the objection of the nobles, the pope invalidated the Magna Carta. In the midst of this historic transformation of England's political and justice system, King John died abruptly in October 1216.
Henry III succeeded his father, John, and became king at the young age of nine. Through the nobles' persistence and the support of Henry III, a new version of the Magna Carta was reinstated, making it law once more. Despite this brave choice, Henry III made several mistakes during his reign and was a rather weak king. As he became more unpopular, the nobles mounted a rebellion against him. Led by Earl Simon de Montford, the nobles arranged the first meeting of Parliament in 1265. At this discussion they met "to suggest laws, give advice, and approve tax bills." 12 Shortly thereafter, Parliament gained the right to have the final say on whether or not taxes were levied. This is where the saying, the "power of the purse", comes from. If a new law or tax was to be constituted, it would have to be to the consent of the majority of Parliament. Years later, this idea of Parliament blossomed into what is known today as representative government.
In 1272, Henry III's son, Edward I, became king of England. He sought to unite all of Great Britain, as Wales and Scotland were independent at the time. Edward I was successful in quickly gaining control of Wales, but had less success in subduing Scotland. Eventually, Edward I would capture Scotland and bring it under the rule of the English Parliament. Meanwhile, in his own country, Edward I "used his royal authority to establish the rights of the Crown at the expense of traditional feudal privileges, to promote the uniform administration of justice, to raise income to meet the costs of war and government, and to codify the legal system. In doing so, his methods emphasised the role of Parliament and the common law." 13 As the Parliamentary system became standardized, elected representatives from Scotland and Wales were added to the Parliament. Whenever Edward I wanted to issue new laws or taxes in Scotland or Wales well as his home country, it would have to be approved by the majority of various representatives from each country. Known as the Edward's "Model Parliament", this representative legislature became a regular feature of English government. 14
From then on, the English government went on to lead the world in representative government and regulated sovereignty. Proverbs 24:23 reads, "These also are sayings of the wise: To show partiality in judging is not good." Some wise men realized the validity of this statement and promoted the creation of the Magna Carta. This new charter would eventually ensure that kings would not misuse their power and laid the foundation for representative government and the English Parliament. It would enshrine in law and in the English political system, barriers to dictatorial rule. It also formed a basis for the form of representative rule which is common in today's western societies.
1 Combee, Jerry H. History of the World in Christian Perspective. Pensacola Christian College, 1995. Third Edition. Page 241. 11. Oct. 2003.
2 History and Theology of Religions in England Today. 14. Oct. 2003. http://www.historyofengland.net/religion/religion9.html.
3, 4, 5 Combee, Jerry H. History of the World in Christian Perspective. Pensacola Christian College, 1995. Third Edition. Page 240. 11. Oct. 2003.
6 Richardson, Kristi & Fisher, Mark. History of the World in Christian Perspective. 11 Oct. 2003. King Richard I.
7 The Columbia Encyclopedia. 2001. Sixth Edition. Richard I. 11. Oct. 2003.
8 King David. Bible. Proverbs 21:10
9 Kimbell, Charles Scott. A History of Europe. The Plantagents and the Magna Carta. 11. Oct. 2003.
10 Combee, Jerry H. History of the World in Christian Perspective. Pensacola Christian College, 1995. Third Edition. Page 241. 11. Oct. 2003.
11 Christian History Institute. Great Charter for England. 15. Oct. 2003.
12 Stanton, Mar & Hyma, Albert. Streams of Civilization: Volume One. Life Publishers. 1992. Page 278. 15. Oct. 2003.
13 History of the Monarch. Edward I. 15. Oct. 2003.
14 Combee, Jerry H. History of the World in Christian Perspective. Pensacola Christian College, 1995. Third Edition. Page 242. 16. Oct. 2003.
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