I don’t intend to review these historical documents each day, but I do want to get started and I decided to go basically in historical order. Ever since I wrote yesterday I have been intrigued by the first of these documents – the Magna Carta or Great Charter. Prior to today I had never given more than a cursory look at the actual text of the Magna Carta, mostly for me it has just been an ancient document that helped establish the foundation of freedom upon which the Constitution was built. It appears that there were two versions, one given in 1215 and then a revised version – omitting some sections – in 1225.
The Magna Carta establishes the independence of the church from the control of the king although I would have to study my history to see what that meant in practical terms. It also addresses the laws pertaining to inheritance and the payment of debts protecting heirs (especially heirs under the legal age) and debtors from having their property taken unduly. It also established the rights of widows to own common property upon the deaths of their husbands.
Based on the 13th section (the original document had no such breaks) it appears that the people of the city of London had gained some freedoms that were unusual for the time. The Magna Carta dictated that all cities should enjoy the same privileges as London had obtained.
I find what appear to be precursors to a judicial system that allowed for standardized punishment, juries (four local knights were the prescribed jury here) and possibly a system for appeals. Free men were given the right of a trial by a jury of their peers before they could be imprisoned or stripped of their rights. Also included was a provision that fines should be “only in proportion to the degree of his offence[sic], and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood.”
Government officers are prevented from taking goods for the government without the consent of the owner and appropriate compensation. They were also required to produce witnesses besides themselves in order to put a person on trial.
Standards of measurement and value were to be established throughout the kingdom.
Except in time of war, merchants were to be allowed free passage into and out of the country – so long as they did not swear allegiance to another country.
A congress of 25 barons was to be established (perhaps a precursor to the House of Lords) which had the authority to seek redress if the king should break any of the provisions of the Magna Carta. They also had the authority to seize anything save the members of the royal family if redress was not given within 40 days after they notified the king of any offense against this charter. I particularly like this portion:
Any man who so desires may take an oath to obey the commands of the twenty-five barons for the achievement of these ends, and to join with them in assailing us to the utmost of his power. We give public and free permission to take this oath to any man who so desires, and at no time will we prohibit any man from taking it. Indeed, we will compel any of our subjects who are unwilling to take it to swear it at our command. (emphasis mine)
More historical information – such as the fact that it was renounced soon afterwards by the king and that many parts of it were repealed in the 18th and 19th centuries (no wonder the American colonies broke away in the late 18th century) – can be found in Wikipedia under Magna Carta and 1215. Another interesting fact was that it was (closely) based on the Charter of Liberties given by Henry I.