Magna Carta

Magna Carta

King Edward I affirms the Magna Carta in 1297

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Magna Carta

Before the 12th century, there were no set laws. Rulers could basically do whatever they liked. If a person was found guilty there were usually just two choices, he was hanged if he were a commoner, or beheaded if he were an aristocrat. Slowly, this all began to change under Henry I(1100 to 1135). Henry leaped on the idea of expanding the royal justice system. Always in need of more funds, Henry instituted a court system based on heavy fines. By the end of his administration, the king's justice was being administered far and wide. His theory was, the more cases that were handled, the more revenue he received.

King Henry II is considered the father of English common law. Like Henry I, he favored the extension of royal jurisdiction. He first did this in 1166, with his royal decree called the “Assize of Clarendon.” The decree broadened the powers of the royal courts by including the indictment and prosecution of local criminals. Under this system the king ordered the sheriff to appointed 12 good men for a jury. If they found that the charges against the person were true, then he or she was arrested by the sheriff and brought before a judge. This was called a “presentment.” These courts were the roots of our modern grand jury system. During the same time period, judges began reviewing the opinions that other judges had given. For the first time Henry's court recorded judicial opinions, in what became the basis of common law. Next, Henry provided legal action for anyone wrongfully disposed of their land.

Henry II created the foundation for the legal systems in both England and the United States. However, he was terrible at family matters. He faced non-stop rebellions by his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his sons Richard and John. In 1189, at the time of his death, both of his sons had taken up arms against him. However, it was Richard who took control of the throne. He ruled for ten uneventful years. Directly following his death, his brother King John (1199-1216) became king. John can only be described as unscrupulous and evil. If he wanted someone's land, he would just take it. If they raised a fuss, he killed them. He stole the 12 year old girlfriend of one of his vassals and married her. At the same time, he was engaged in a bitter quarrel with Pope Innocent III, telling his own nobles that if they obeyed the pope he would punish them.

John became disliked by commoners and nobles alike. Before long, he decided that he wanted to invade France. When his nobles heard this they said, “No!” So he hired a professional army and they were humiliated in the Bouvines disaster of 1214. Then the whole thing hit a boiling point when he told his nobles that he would raise their taxes to pay for the lost war. On June 12, 1215, the nobles met John in a meadow next to the Thames River called Runnymede. They brought a list of their demands for reform. Then, after a weeks debate, John put his seal on the document that would become known as the Magna Carta (Great Charter). There were 63 points, some were small and others would have a lasting impact. The document stated that the king is bound by legal limitations in his relations with all free Englishmen. It said that, no free man could be tried except by the lawful judgment of his peers. In addition, there would be no taxation without representation.

Magna Carta Picture