Study Guide

Magna Carta Analysis

By King John of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, and various English barons

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  • Rhetoric


    With the Magna Carta, it's all about who you know. It gets its power from who agreed to it (and who stamped it at the bottom).

    The opening lines list a bunch of rich and powerful English celebrities to give the charter credibility and then make only very basic moral arguments throughout.

    Imagine that you're an average medieval free man/woman just doing your thing on your farm and you find out that literally every rich guy you've ever heard of all agreed on this one document. You'd probably be so amazed and astonished that you'd figure that the doc must be super important…and you'd better get on board too.

    The document doesn't attempt to logically work through the reasons behind any of the limits it places on the king or the rights it grants to the people. And it's not like the average person could read or had well-developed analytical skills anyway. The only explanations infrequently given are that it's the way things have traditionally been done, or it's the way some important person wants it to be done, which are basically all anyone in the medieval era cared about anyway.

    Traditions and obeying rich people was kind of all they had back then.

    There are no direct references to anything analytical: no one analyzed the costs and benefits of jury trials or studied the ramifications of a council of barons. While it might have been fun to hold a focus group of knights, monks, and livestock herders, and find out the opinions of the masses on their preferred government styles, there wasn't really time. The Magna Carta was supposed to prevent a war. They couldn't get all emotional.

    The Magna Carta is a legal document devoid of any personal stories. By reading it you can't tell who had their lands snatched up by the King, who the prisoners are who're being released, or even what exactly they did to be arrested in the first place.

  • Structure

    Consider Yourself Lucky

    The original Magna Carta not only didn't really have an organizational structure, but it was also written in highly abbreviated Medieval Latin. Yeah, that's the language you used when you wanted something to be super snobby, but not take up too many pieces of expensive parchment.

    The clauses weren't numbered, because there weren't clauses or any formal separation at all. They didn't even use paragraph breaks, making the Magna Carta the world's most important run-on sentence ever.

    In 1759 Sir William Blackstone had the good sense to go through and number each of the ideas turning most of the document into a list, leaving everyone wondering why the heck it took well over five hundred years for someone to finally think of that. The problem of the clauses being in no particular order persists to this day, but Shmoop has you covered in the breakdown below.

    How it Breaks Down

    The Churchy Clauses

    Clauses 1, 46, and 63 are there to remind everyone that the traditions of the Catholic Church come before English traditions…as well as the so-called personal "traditions" that King John kept making up as he went along.

    This debate had actually been settled several years before the Magna Carta. But given King John's track record can you really blame the clergy for putting it in writing several more times?

    The Tax-y Clauses

    These clauses were pretty much the reason they were all standing around a wet meadow on a Monday instead of working (or doing whatever it was barons did during the day). Clauses 2, 12, 14-16, 23, 25, 26, 29, 36, 37, 41, and 43 all tell the king to stop taxing certain things…and that if he wants a new tax he needs to ask nicely first.

    The Death Clauses

    People in the medieval era died a lot on account of the constant wars, plagues and the fact that nobody knew very much about medicine or sanitation.

    Clauses 2-8, 10, 11, 18, 26, 27, and 37 all try to convince people (ahem, the king) not to take advantage or unfairly handle survivors such as child heirs and widows.

    How Not To Punish People

    If there's one thing the barons hated more than taxes, it was getting banished so that the king could steal all their land, possessions, and daughters. Clauses 9, 20-22, 32, 34, 36, 39, and 40 all forbid excessive punishments that everybody agrees go too far.

    Courtroom Shenanigans

    King John didn't really bother with courtrooms, so the barons explain the concept to him.

    Clauses 17-19, 24, 34, 38, 40, 44, 45, 54 all explain how a trial and courts are supposed to work. These are some of the longer-lasting clauses, copied down by the American founding fathers and passed off as original ideas.

    Stealing Is Wrong (Most Of The Time)

    In some of the most face-palm worthy clauses in the whole charter they explain (with some humorous exceptions) that the government can't just shoplift everything they want. Clauses 28, 30-32, 37, 47, and 48 list things King John and friends can't steal from people and what limits their need to be on the actions of the government.

    Oh Yeah: This Is Also A Peace Treaty

    Eventually they get around to addressing the fact that they're not going to fight each other. Clauses 49-51, 58, 59, 62 are all specific peace-treaty clauses about who's forgiven and who's still in the doghouse.

    The Undo Button

    This is the part where King John says he's very, very sorry for all the stuff he's done…and that it didn't really count anyway. Clauses 52, 53, and 55-57 all negate the king's naughty deeds (and maybe those of the last two kings, too).

    Who Put These Clauses Here?

    Some of the clauses don't fit into any category and are just kind of random…leaving historians wondering, "Why did they go down this tangent? Was there one baron who was just really into fishing?"

    Clauses 12, 25, 33, 35, 42, and 60 are probably good ideas, but also reveal the glaring organizational problems with the Magna Carta.

    The Clause To Rule All Clauses

    The longest clause is number 61, also known as the Security Clause. This is one where the barons say they're going to form an elected council to keep the king in line and maybe steal some of his stuff one day because that's now an acceptable form of punishment (see above).

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Magna Carta is Latin for Great Charter, distinguishing it from all other not-so-great charters.

    They didn't actually call it that in 1215 when it was originally written, but the term was used for later versions and stuck. The British say, "Magna Carta," never "the Magna Carta" the same way they always say, "Do you need to go to hospital?" due to their irrational fear of articles.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    The beginning of the Magna Carta is basically a list of the important figures that were there when it was written.

    It begins with:

    JOHN, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his officials and loyal subjects, Greeting. (preamble.1)

    …and it continues by naming others present at Runnymede.

    This is before the custom of signing documents at the bottom, and these dudes wanted to make sure they got their names in somewhere, so they began by listing them all at the top including all their titles.

    It's a bit like when teachers ask students to head their papers. It's so that everybody will know right away who wrote this magnificent work of wonder—or so that they know who to blame.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    The closing line is actually a big blob of beeswax and resin plopped onto the parchment, then smooshed down with the royal seal and left to dry. That's how they signed thing back in the olden days…and it's actually kind of brilliant.

    Anybody can forge a signature, especially when handwriting wasn't really a skill taught much outside of monasteries, but it's much more difficult to recreate a big metal stamp. So the king had the only copy of the royal seal and would smack it down into wax every time he wanted people to know that he approved of something. Likewise each noble and bishop and important person would have a one and only copy of their seal too.

    The actual closing words of the Magna Carta are:

    Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign. (63.4)

    …which is basically the lead up to a signature/seal. You know that it's the king speaking because of the way he refers to, "our hand." Only kings can get away with talking about their body parts like that (in the majestic plural).

    Also, the king's hand probably didn't do much of anything noteworthy at Runnymede. It's very unlikely that anyone actually named in the Magna Carta physically wrote on the parchment. They were all wealthy, celebrity types who surely paid some scribe to write as they dictated.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    The Magna Carta's a whopping eight hundred years old and unless you're an expert on medieval taxes—are you? you're our hero—you'll need the glossary to help explain a few antiquated terms.

    Also the voice isn't cohesive. Some of the clauses are written as general rules applying to everyone, while others are written as promises from the king who speaks in majestic plural, also known as "the royal we."

    Helpful hint: whenever you see "we" and "our," that's the king talking about himself in first-person plural as if he were several pretentious people instead of just one.

    Once you get used to these shifts, the basic ideas are fairly simplistic. This isn't Shakespeare—it's a list of complaints and most of them are so ordinary you'll find yourself thinking, "I can't believe they actually had to write that down," like when you're babysitting and you have to say, "No, you can't learn to juggle knives just because your parents are out."

    The Magna Carta is an attempt to spell out some very basic ideas for a shockingly unwilling king.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    • JOHN, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou (Preamble.1)
    • Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England, and cardinal of the holy Roman Church (Preamble.2, 55.1, 62.2)
    • Henry archbishop of Dublin (Preamble.2, 62.2) 
    • Master Pandulf subdeacon and member of the papal household (Preamble.2, 62.2)

    Religious figures included in the preamble:

    • William bishop of London
    • Peter bishop of Winchester
    • Jocelin bishop of Bath and Glastonbury
    • Hugh bishop of Lincoln
    • Walter bishop of Worcester
    • William bishop of Coventry
    • Benedict bishop of Rochester
    • Brother Aymeric master of the knighthood of the Temple in England (Preamble.2)

    Nobles who were advising King John at the time of the creation of the Magna Carta:

    • William Marshal earl of Pembroke
    • William earl of Salisbury
    • William earl of Warren
    • William earl of Arundel
    • Alan of Galloway constable of Scotland
    • Warin fitz Gerald
    • Peter fitz Herbert
    • Hubert de Burgh seneschal of Poitou
    • Hugh de Neville
    • Matthew fitz Herbert
    • Thomas Basset
    • Alan Basset
    • Philip Daubeny
    • Robert de Roppeley
    • John Marshal
    • John fitz Hugh (Preamble.2)
    • Pope Innocent III (1.2)

    Mercenaries from France who, King John hired to act as officials:

    • Gerard de Athée 
    • Engelard de Cigogné
    • Peter, Guy
    • Andrew de Chanceaux
    • Guy de Cigogné
    • Geoffrey de Martigny and his brothers
    • Philip Marc and his brothers, with Geoffrey his nephew, and all their followers (50.1)
    • King Henry (52.2, 53.1, 57.1) Referring to King John's father Henry II of England
    • King Richard (52.2, 53.1, 57.1) Referring to King John's brother Richard I of England
    • "the son of Llywelyn" (58.1) Refers to Gruffydd ap Llywelyn Fawr the son of Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great who was married to King John's illegitimate daughter Joan (Gruffydd was Llywelyn's son by a previous marriage).
    • "sisters and hostages of Alexander, king of Scotland […] William, formerly king of Scotland" (59.1) refers to Isabella and Margaret, sisters to Alexander II King of Scotland (all children of William the previous King of Scotland). King John was holding Isabella and Margaret hostage to prevent them from being married to the royal family of France, which would unite his two main enemies. Meanwhile Alexander II had joined the rebel barons and was fighting against King John.

    References to This Text

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • The Magna Carta is referenced in virtually every book written about law and/or government and published in English for hundreds of years.

    Historical and Political References

    • The Magna Carta obviously influenced virtually every constitutional government and democracy around the world, although rarely do the founding documents of governments cite their sources of inspiration. However, it has been mentioned in numerous legal cases from the U.S. Supreme Court on down, particularly in cases where the president must abide by the same laws as the people.
    • Many important political figures have directly referenced the Magna Carta in public speeches including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Franklin Roosevelt in his 3rd Inaugural Address.

    Pop Culture References

    • Important, original documents on topics other than government sometimes earn themselves the nickname, "The Magna Carta of [insert topic here]." One example of this is the "Magna Carta of Baseball" which is a handwritten list of rules for playing baseball from 1857.
    • John Philip Sousa wrote "The Magna Charta March" in 1927, and wanted it performed every year on June 15 to celebrate the anniversaries of the signing.
    • In 1965 a series of five-cent Magna Carta postage stamps were issued in the U.S.
    • A British progressive rock group formed in the late 1960's (and apparently still performing) goes by the name "Magna Carta."
    • Jay Z launched his album Magna Carta Holy Grail in 2013 at Salisbury Cathedral, home of one of the original copies of the 1215 charter.
    • In the 1997 episode of The Simpsons titled "Realty Bites," Lisa Simpson sings a short song about the Magna Carta set the tune of Camptown Races: "In 1215 at Runnymede, do da, do, da. The nobles and the king agreed, oh da doo da day."
    • A 1983 episode of Doctor Who called "The King's Demons" is set at the signing of the Magna Carta and involves robots plotting to replace King John.
    • Many films and plays include portrayals of King John (all negative by the way) but few include the Magna Carta. The 2010 version of Robin Hood is an exception to this, as it makes reference to supporting an important charter that King John disagreed with.
  • Trivia

    In 1976 the British Parliament offered to loan the U.S. a copy of the 1215 Magna Carta to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial. However, Congress rejected the proposal 219 to 167. When asked why, many congresspersons admitted they hadn't read the bill and when it came up for a second vote, it passed. Come on guys—do your homework. (Source)

    The ancestry of every U.S. president (except Martin Van Buren) has been traced back to King John of England, meaning they're all distantly related to the King forced to sign the Magna Carta (and to each other). But will we ever know who President Van Buren is related to? (Source)

    If you can prove that you descended from one of the twenty-five barons elected to serve under the Magna Carta's security clause, then you can join the National Society of Magna Charta Dames and Barons, which you can rub in the face of all the decedents of the loyal barons who don't have a special club. (Source)

    A privately owned copy of the Magna Carta was sold at auction in 2007 for $21.3 million, the most ever paid for a single page of writing. And it wasn't even an original copy; it was from 1297. (Source)

    The Magna Carta was originally written in Latin (the language of the Church) and then translated into French (the language of the nobility). So the most important document in English history wasn't translated into English for about three hundred years. That is a really long backlog. (Source)

    To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta the British Library gathered up the four surviving copies of the 1215 original for a really classy reunion. Over 43,000 people applied wanting to see them all together, but only 1,215 were allowed inside. Get it? Written in 1215, so 1,215 visitors. Librarians can be so cute. (Source)

    In 1957 the American Bar Association (that's an important group of lawyers) built the Magna Carta Monument at Runnymede, although it's probably not in the exact location where the signing/stamping took place. But, when it really is just a swampy patch next to a river, does it matter where the monument is? (Source)

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