Author(s)Dr Andrea Ruddick
Date 6 August 2020

It is unlikely to have escaped your notice by now that 2015 marks the eight-hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta, the famous charter of English liberties issued by King John in 1215. Or, at least, the eight-hundredth anniversary of its first draft… In fact, Magna Carta did not attain its iconic status as the cornerstone of English democracy until somewhat later. Its rebranding as a repository of ‘British values’ is still more recent.

The mythology that has grown up around it as a key text for seventeenth-century English parliamentarians and eighteenth-century American revolutionaries would certainly have surprised its original compilers. For the first ‘Great Charter’, signed by John at Runnymede in June 1215, was simply the product of peace negotiations between the king and his rebellious barons. It was never intended to be a timeless statement of abstract ‘rights’. These peace negotiations proved unsuccessful, however, as John almost immediately went back on his word. The ensuing civil war was only halted by his convenient death in 1216, which enabled the political community to rally around his nine-year-old son, Henry III, for a fresh start.The original Magna Carta was a hotch-potch of traditional grievances and particular complaints about John’s tyrannical kingship, with one or two genuinely innovative ideas thrown into the mix. Many of its more specific clauses quickly became obsolete, and most of its provisions only affected the highest levels of society. Nonetheless, the principles behind its provisions, especially the idea that the king should not arbitrarily take his subjects’ property, made the Charter an important symbol of good government during the Middle Ages. It was repeatedly reissued over the next three centuries, usually as a pledge of goodwill when the king was planning to ask for more taxes.

Magna Carta and the church
We are most familiar today with its secular clauses, notably the right to a fair trial, the principle of consent to taxation, and the famous demand that justice should not be sold, denied, or delayed to any man. However, Magna Carta also had significance for the English church. A number of prelates were involved in its compilation, and the preface stated that it had been put together for ‘the honour of God and the exultation of the holy Church’ as well as the reform of the realm.

The very first clause of Magna Carta states that: ‘the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.’ What did this mean? At the time, the phrase ‘church liberties’ was used to describe all of the English church’s special privileges, especially the jealously-guarded boundaries between secular and ecclesiastical jurisdiction. This included freedom from lay control in episcopal appointments, control of church property, and the right to have religious matters (including cases of clergy accused of secular crimes) heard in church courts.

This was part of a bigger picture. Since the Norman Conquest, the English clergy had been caught up in a turf war between the king and the pope over who had supreme authority over the church in England. Modernists take note: this wasn’t an issue invented by Henry VIII! For much of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, royal control of the English church had been the norm, while paying lip service to the theoretical supremacy of the papacy. This meant, for example, that it was usually the king’s preferred candidates who became bishops, despite the principle that they should be freely elected by the cathedral chapter.

Pope vs. king
From the mid-eleventh century, there had been an increased drive by the papacy to reassert its authority across Europe and reduce lay control over church affairs – at exactly the point that English kings were seeking to consolidate authority. Inevitably, this led to clashes, most famously the quarrel between Henry II and Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. English prelates and clergy were often uncomfortably torn between loyalty to the king as their secular ruler and to the pope as their spiritual overlord. A successful defence of ‘church liberties’ against secular encroachments frequently represented a victory for papal authority.

The pope at the time of Magna Carta was Innocent III, a strong proponent of papal supremacy. Unsurprisingly, he clashed with King John, and their relationship reached a low point in 1208 when John refused to accept the pope’s candidate as archbishop of Canterbury. John was excommunicated and Innocent placed the entire kingdom under an ‘Interdict’ – all sacraments (except the baptism of infants and last rites) were suspended, ecclesiastical vacancies were left unfilled, and church buildings were closed.

However, by 1213, as John faced growing baronial opposition and a possible French invasion, he reopened negotiations. The pope was keen to promote peace within Christendom so he could launch a new crusade. They struck a deal in which John surrendered England to the pope as a papal fief, in return for an annual tribute. The newly-friendly Innocent III therefore quickly condemned Magna Carta in 1215 as an illegal document, obtained under duress, with no binding force on John.

The next pope gave his support to a revised version of Magna Carta, reissued several times over the next few years. Royal exploitation of the English church had been limited by Magna Carta, but this had created a power vacuum in which papal control could increase.

English clergy found themselves torn between royal and papal demands. One pope banned the English clergy from paying taxes without papal permission; the king responded by outlawing the clergy and confiscating their property until they paid a hefty fine. The crisis was eventually resolved in parliament, when new taxes were granted in exchange for yet another reissue of Magna Carta. But this was not much help to the English clergy: instead, from 1300, the reconciled pope and king negotiated a series of papally-authorised clerical taxes and shared the proceeds.

By the reign of Edward III, the English church was thoroughly under the king’s thumb. The king controlled most episcopal appointments, selecting royal servants whose main agenda was to extract taxation rather than defend church liberties. There were no more Beckets prepared to stand up to the king. Clerical taxation was also popular with the Commons in parliament, who resented church wealth and saw it as a way to relieve the tax burden on the laity. The pope and clergy continued to hold a privileged position in medieval society as the gatekeepers of salvation through their administration of the sacraments. But the later Middle Ages saw growing lay control over church property and personnel, accompanied by growing popular anti-papalism in English society. These developments are sometimes seen as paving the way for the English Reformation.

Liberties unimpaired?
Magna Carta made great claims for the liberties of the English church. In practice, however, the medieval English church swung between servitude to one of two human masters: the king or the pope. Caught in the power struggle between monarchy and papacy, most English bishops were either the pope’s men or, increasingly, the king’s. Consequently, whatever its contribution to modern democracy, Magna Carta arguably contributed little to either the honour of God or the exultation of the holy Church in the Middle Ages.

What it might mean for the English church to be free today is another story.