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MAGNA CHARTA.

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The reign of King John will be for ever memorable in the annals of English history for the melioration of the Constitution, by his concession, however reluctantly granted, of the great charter of British liberties. And as it is the foundation, not only of English freedom, but of the liberties of the whole British dominions, we begin the history of our Constitution with some account of it, and a copy of its translation. In such a miscellany as this, it would be impossible to give a complete commentary on this famous charter, the palladium of British freedom—we shall therefore confine our observations to a brief analysis, pointing out, in as few words as possible, the grievances and hardships that were intended to be removed, with the liberties and privileges that were designed to be granted, by the great charter of King John.

Those privileges and liberties may be divided into four classes :-1. Those granted to the church and clergy; 2. To the earls, barons, knights, and others who held of the king in capite, that is, in chief; 3. To cities, towns, and merchants, for the encouragement of trade; 4. To the whole body of freemen. None of the parties concerned in this important charter ever entertained a thought of emancipating slaves or villeins, who composed in fact the great mass of the people ; and therefore they are only once mentioned, and that, not for any advantage for themselves, but entirely for their master's benefit.

The power and wealth of the clergy were then so great, and their grievances so few, that they had scarcely any thing to complain of or to ask ; and this probably is the reason why there are so few articles in the charter respecting the church. The famous Constitutions of Clarendon (hereafter related) had been an object of execration and horror to the popes, and the clergy of their party, for more than half a century before the concession of the great charter. After a long and violent struggle, in which Thomas-à-Becket lost his life, Henry II. had been compelled to give up the greater part of these Constitutions; and it is evident, that the articles in the charter respecting the church, were intended to guard against the restoration of these detested laws, and to eradicate their remains, one of which subjected the clergy to the jurisdiction of the civil courts. It is declared in the first article, “ that the English church shall be free, and have her rights entire, and her liberties unhurt.” By the freedom here stipulated for the church of England, the exemption of the clergy from the jurisdiction of the civil courts, to which they had been subjected by the third Constitution of Clarendon, is most probably here to be understood. Archbishop Becket and the clergy contended as pertinaciously for

this pernicious exemption, as if it had constituted the very essence of christianity, and the very existence of the Church itself; and after they did obtain it, they defended it with equal obstinacy. One of the rights of the church, which is particularly mentioned in the first article, is in direct contradiction to the twelfth Constitution of Clarendon.

It is the right, which King John had granted by a particular charter about a year before, to monks of cathedral churches and abbeys, freely to choose their own bishops and abbots.

The twenty-second article of the charter seems very plainly to indicate, that the freedom granted to the clergy implied an exemption of their persons as clergymen, and of their benefices belonging to the church, from civil jurisdiction. For by that article it is declared, that no clergyman shall be amerced according to the value of his ecclesiastical benefice, but according to his secular estate. A clergyman, therefore, who had no secular estate, was not liable to be amerced. One reason for inserting that article seenis to have been, that some clergymen, who had secular estates, had been so unreasonable as to plead, that these estates should be exempted from jurisdiction, as well as their ecclesiastical benefices.

None of the Constitutions of Clarendon were more disagreeable to the Pope and clergy than the fourth, which prohibited all bishops and clerks, that is clergymen, from going out of the kingdom without the king's leave. For, by this law, the clergy were prevented from prosecuting their appeals, and other affairs, at the court of Rome, which deprived that court of much solid power and riches. The forty-second article of the charter removed this restraint, and the clergy, as well as others, were permitted to leave the kingdom at their own pleasure.

As the earls and barons were the chief instruments in procuring this charter, there is little doubt but they would be very careful of the interests of their own order. They had suffered considerable hardships under the feudal system of tenures, and to mitigate these some of the articles were framed. The wardship of the heirs of the nobility and chief vassals was a source of great profit to the crown, which exercised great tyranny, in exacting large fines when these came of age, on their taking possession of their estates. The third article corrects this oppressive custom. Sometimes a king of England, at this period, appointed the sheriff of the county, or some other person, to manage the estate of an earl or baron, who was his ward, and to pay the profits arising from it into the Exchequer. At other times he sold or granted the wardship, with all its profits, to some particular person. In both cases, the tenants on the estates of the royal wards were often most grievously oppressed, and their estates wasted, the castles, houses, mills, parks, &c. suffered to go to ruin, because the managers would not be at the expense of repairs. The fourth and fifth artieles provided some partial remedies; but the unhappy people who were

annexed to their estates were viewed by these mighty champions of liberty as their cattle or horses, and were sold and transferred in the same way.

But in addition to these grievances, to which the nobility and other military vassals of the crown were subject, they were liable to the exercise of a most intolerable tyranny, from the right which the sovereign possessed of disposing of them in marriage at his own pleasure or caprice. In consequence of this unnatural right, the heirs and heiresses of the greatest families and fortunes were frequently sold or granted in marriage to persons disagreeable to them, or unworthy of them; or, to preserve themselves from such a disagreeable calamity, they were obliged to pay exorbitant fines. The sixth article sets some bounds to this tyrannical privilege of the crown.

But this article was too general and indefinite to be an effectual remedy against so great an evil. Not only heirs and heiresses, but also widows, were subjected to great oppressions by the feudal system, and subjected to the payment of heavy fines to obtain possession of their dower, and for liberty to remain unmarried, or to marry whom they chose. In the thirtyfirst year of Henry II., Maud, Countess of Warwick, paid the king seven hundred merks, equal in value to seven thousand pounds of our present money, that she might receive her dower, and be at liberty to marry whom she pleased. Lucia, Countess of Chester, paid five hundred merks to King Stephen, that she might not be compelled to marry within five years. King John had carried this part of feudal oppression, as well as all other points of royal prerogative, to a greater extent than any of his royal predecessors; for Alicia, Countess of Warwick, paid him no less a sum than one thousand pounds, that she might not be forced to marry till she pleased.

While the kings of England acted as if they had been the sole judge; both of the quantity of the feudal prestations, aids, scutages, and tallages, and of the frequency of exacting them, the property of their vassals was insecure. For when the king could take any proportion of their goods at any time he pleased, they had, in fact, nothing that they could call their own.

To prevent this most dangerous abuse in the sovereign, and his granting permission to inferior feudal lords to be guilty of a like abuse over their vassals, is the intention of the twelfth and thirteenth articles of the Great Charter. But because it would be impossible to enumerate all the various tyrannical vexations to which the military vassals of the crown were subject, and to provide particular remedies for each of them, the sixteenth article provides generally, but so vaguely as to have been of very little use, “ that no man shall be constrained to do more service for a knight's fee than what is due.”

Such were the mitigations of some of the greatest rigours of the feu. dal system obtained from king John by the barons; but neither party

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were capable of forming an idea of the perfect freedom from all the servility of that system which we now enjoy. The act of 12th Charles II. completely revolutionized this system, and secured to us that proud maxim, that " an Englishman's house is his castle.”

One thing, which seemed to render these limitations of the sovereign's power as a feudal lord of greater importance and more universal value, was, that by the sixtieth article of this famous charter, the same limitations are imposed on all inferior feudal lords towards their vassals. sonable article was probably inserted at the king's desire, which contributed not a little to render the benefit ineffectual. For although the barons were very anxious to prevent any tyrannical exercise of the feudal power of the crown over themselves, they had not the slightest intention to relieve the bulk of the people from any oppression, whether exercised by themselves or by the crown : the people, therefore, are indebted to the king for this attention to their interests. The nobility continued to oppress the people notwithstanding, which encouraged subsequent kings to violate its limitations, and also furnished them with an ever-ready argument in answer to the complaints of the barons.

Trade and commerce, at the period when the great charter was granted, were very little known, and held in the utmost contempt by the proud barons, and the bold yeomanry, of England. For almost half a century after the Conquest, there were no towns of any importance except London and some others, and their inhabitants were little better than slaves to the king or the barons on whose domains they were situated. But about the middle of the twelfth century, they began to emerge from this obscurity, and to obtain some degree of importance. By the royal charters of Henry II., Richard I., and king John, many small towns were made free burghs, with establishments of merchants, guilds, and other fraternities, endowed with various privileges, which quickly filled them with free and independent in habitants. Many of these free burghs favoured the cause of the barons, particularly the citizens of London, who joined them with so much zeal, that they gave the barons possession of their city. This is perhaps the reason why the privileges of cities and towns, and the interests of commerce, were not entirely overlooked.

Accordingly the thirteenth article grants, that the city of London, and all the other cities, burghs, towns, and ports of the kingdom, should enjoy all their liberties and free customs both by land and water. sent times, when law and justice have their regular course, such a stipulation would be unnecessary. But at that period this was far from being the case, when fines from cities, towns, and corporations, for license to use their legal rights and liberties, constituted a considerable branch of the royal

It is probable that the citizens of London procured the insertion of the thirty-fifth article, which commanded the London measures of

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wine, ale, and corn, with a uniformity of weights, to be observed all over the kingdom. Lending money on interest was then called usury, and prohibited to Christians by the canons of the church, and even by the laws of the land. This branch of business was therefore entirely engrossed by the children of Israel, who were the only money-lenders in the kingdom, and very often great extortioners. The citizens of London had borrowed large sums from the Jews; and it is likely that the tenth article was inserted on their suggestion, but which was equally advantageous to feudal superiors who had the wardship of minors.

One of the greatest obstructions to commerce was the irrational jealousy of foreign merchants. In consequence, these merchants were subjected to many restraints and hardships. They were not suffered to enter the kingdom but at certain times, nor to stay above forty days at one time, nor to expose their goods for sale, except at certain fairs. They were frequently obliged to pay large fines to the king for license to trade, and much higher customs and tolls of all kinds than the native merchants.

Both their persons and goods were exposed to great violence when a war happened to break out between England and the country to which they belonged. But juster notions began gradually to gain ground, and the forty-first article gives protection to the persons and goods of foreign merchants, both during peace and war.

The great barons who procured this inestimable charter may be viewed as acting in a double capacity : 1. as military vassals of the crown ; 2. as subjects generally. They consulted their own interests in the first capacity, by the limitations of the rigours of their feudal tenures, which they procured for themselves, but which was shared also by all who held lands by military services. They consulted their interests in the second capacity, by the amendments they procured in the general police of the kingdom, in which all of their fellow subjects who were freemen were equally partakers. These amendments were both numerous and important, tending to remove or alleviate the several grievances of which the people complained.

The greatest of all the grievances of which the people of England complained at the period of granting the great charter, was—that the mere will and arbitrary commands of the sovereign were substituted in the place of law, and men were seized, imprisoned, stripped of their estates, outlawed, banished, and even executed, without any trial or course of law. Out of many instances that might be adduced of all these tyrannical acts, the case of Thomas-à-Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, may suffice, when Henry II., the greatest and best prince of the age, apprebended all his relations, friends, and dependents, to the number of four hundred persons, men, women, and children--confiscated all their estates and goods, and banished them out of the kingdom, in the middle of winter, anno 1165—and this on account of the archbishop's opposition to the Constitutions of Clarendon, and

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