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Magna Charta

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MAGNA CHARTA. The terms of the compact between the feudal chief and his dependants underwent frequent changes iu the middle ages. When a material alteration was made in the terms of the compact, a record was made of it in writing. These records are called Charters, in the restricted use of a term which is popularly applied to almost every species of early diplomas. The tenants of the various honours, or great tenancies in capite, are seldom without one or more charters which have been granted to them by their lords, by which exemptions or privileges are given, base services are commuted for payments in money, and the mode is settled in which justice shall be administered among them ; and even in some of the inferior manors there are charters of a similar kind, by which certain liberties are guaranteed by the lord to his tenants. These charters run in the form of letters, Omnibus,' &c. from the person granting ; they set forth the thing granted, and end with the names of persons who were present when the lord's seal was affixed, often ten, twelve, or more, with the date of place and time of the grant.

Such a charter is that called the Magna Charts, which was granted by King John, acting in his twofold character of the lord of a body of feudatories, and king. This charter is often regarded as the constitu tional basis of English liberties ; but in many of its provisions it seems to have been only a declaration of rights which had been enjoyed in England before the Conquest, and which are also said to have been granted by King Henry I. on his accession. However, if it did not properly found the liberties which the English nation enjoys, or if it were not the original of those privileges and fran chises which the barons (or the chief tenants of the crown, for the names are here equivalent), ecclesiastical persons, citizens, burgesses, and merchants enjoy, it recalled into existence, it defined, it settled them, it formed in its written state a document to which appeal might be made, under whose protection any person who had any interest in it might find shelter, and which served, as if it were a portion of the common law of the land, to guide the judges to the decisions they pronounced in all questions between the king and any portion of the people.

Besides the great charter there was granted at the same time a charter re lating to the forests only. There were very extensive tracts of land in England which were uncultivated, and reserved for the pleasure of the king ; and there were purlieus to these forests, all of which were subject to a peculiar system of law, many parts of which were oppressive, and from some of which this charter exempted the people.

The independence and rights of the church were also secured by the great charter.

Magna Charts has been printed in a great variety of forms. There are fac similes of a copy of it which was made at the time, and still exists in the British Museuin, and of another preserved at Lincoln, and translations of it into the English language. The provisions of the Magna Charts are numerous, and some of them have fallen into desuetude. The following is the substance of the Great Charter, as given by Blackstone in his Commentaries,' who also wrote a treatise on it.

" The Great Charter," says he, " con firmed many liberties of the church, and redressed many grievances incident to feodal tenures, of no small moment at the time ; though now, unless considered at tentively and with this retrospect, they seem but of trifling concern. But besides these feodal provisions, care was also taken therein to protect the subject against other oppressions, then frequently arising from unreasonable amercements, from illegal distresses or other process for debts or services due to the crown, and from the tyrannical abuse of the preroga tive of purveyance and pre-emption It fixed the forfeiture of lauds for felony in the same manner as it still remains ; pro hibited for the future the grants of ex clusive fisheries, and the erection of new bridges, so as to oppress the neighbour hood. With respect to private rights : it established the testamentary power of the subject over part of his personal estate, the rest being distributed among his wife and children ; it laid down the law of dower as it hath contiuued ever since; and prohibited the appeals of women, un less for the death of their husbands. In matters of public policy and national con cern, it enjoined an uniformity of weights and measures; gave new encouragements to commerce by the protection of mer chant-strangers, and forbad the alienation of lands in mortmain. With regard to

the administration of justice: besides pro hibiting all denials or delays of it. it fixed the Coutt of Common Pleas at Westmin ster, that the suitors might no longer be harassed with following the king's person in all his progresses; and at the same time brought the trial of issues home to the very doors of the freeholders, by di recting assizes to be taken in the proper counties, and establishing annual circuits , it also corrected some abuses then inci dent to the trials by wager of law and of battle; directed the regular awarding of inquests for life or member ; prohibited the king's inferior ministers from holding pleas of the crown, or trying any criminal charge, whereby many forfeitures might otherwise have unjustly accrued to the exchequer ; and regulated the time and place of holding the inferior tribunals of justice, the county court, sheriff's tourn, and court-leet. It confirmed and esta blished the liberties of the city of Lon don, and all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports of the kingdom. And lastly (which alone would have merited the title that it bears of the Great. Charter), it protected every individual of the nation in the free enjoyment of his life, his liberty, and his property, unless declared to be forfeited by the judgment of his peers or the law of the land." Such a concession from the king was not gained without a violent struggle ; in fact he was compelled to yield it by an armed force, consisting of a very large portion of the baronage, which he was unable to resist. The names of the chiefs are preserved by the chroniclers of the time, and in the charter itself; and when ever mentioned they call up to this day a mingled feeling of respect and grati tude, the respect and gratitude which men pay to those who have obtained for them the extension of political rights. They appear the patriots of a rude age ; and the mists of distance and antiquity obscure to us the selfishness and the other evils (if such existed) which were mani fested in the contest. The first name is that of Robert Fitz Walter, who belonged to the great family of Clare. The title given to him as head of the host was Marshal of the Army of God and of the Holy Church. Next to him come Eustace de Vesci, Richard. de Percy, Robert de Roos, Peter de Brits, Nicholas de State vile, Sider de Quenci, earl of Winchester, the earls of Clare, Essex, and Norfolk, William de Mowbray, Robert de Vere, Falk FitzWarine, William de Montacute, William de Beauchamp, and many others of families long after famous in English history, the progenitors of the antient baronial houses of England.

The charter was sealed in the open field, at a place called Runnymede, be tween Windsor and Staines; but it was not merely by an accidental meeting of two armies at that place that this act was done there, for it appears by Matthew of Westminster that Runnymede was a place where treaties concerning the peace of the kingdom had been often made. All was done with great solemnity. The memorable day was June 5, 1215.

What was unwillingly granted, it could scarcely be expected would be religiously observed. John himself would gladly have infringed or broken it, as would his son King Henry III., but the barons were watchful of their own privileges, those of the church, the cities, the boroughs, and of the people at large ; and King Henry was led to make one or more solemn ratifications of the charter. To keep the rights thus guaranteed fully in the eyes of the people a copy was sent to every cathedral church, and read publicly twice • year.

The work of Sir William Blackstone is entitled The great Charter and Char ter of the Forest, with other authentic Instruments ; to which is prefixed an In troductory Discourse concerning the His tory of the Charters,' Oxford, 1759, 4to. The late Board of Commissioners on the Public Records caused to be engraved and published an exact facsimile of the charter, from a copy preserved in the archives of the cathedral church of Lin coln, with other of the greater charters. In the first volume of their work, en titled The Statutes of the Realm,' these charters are all printed, with English translations of them.