Sunday, 2 February 2014

Magna Carta (1215 and 1225) - Chapters 1 (and 63): The Freedom of the English Church

It is tempting to think that Becket won the controversy with Henry II and gained freedom for the English church by his martyrdom, a state of affairs which was eventually formalised nearly half a century later in Chapters 1 (and 63) of the Magna Carta, clauses which have really never ever been repealed, and which are still extant today. And at the very same time that those same clauses promise the Church freedom in its elections, riding aloft on the back of this freedom is the freedom for all the "free men of the realm"  to have and to hold to them and for their heirs, of us [King John] and our heirs forever. In other words it seems that Becket won for the nation and its peoples the freedoms that we all still enjoy today.

It has been suggested that much of Magna Carta was inspired by Christian values and principles. Its principal architect was Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury. One of Langton's heroes was Becket and he clearly admired his stand for the liberty of the Church. Langton believed that law ought to be written down to prevent kings demanding more power than they were entitled to. Langton saw kingship and its faith deriving from a covenant betwixt the king and his people. This had biblical precedence.

In the Old Testament Deuteronomy 17:18-20 King James Version stated

18 And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:

19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:

20 That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.

Magna Carta Chapters 1 (and 63)

1. In primis concessisse deo et hac presenti carta nostra confirmasse, pro nobis et heredibus nostris in perpetuum, quod Anglicana ecclesia libera sit, et habeat jura sua integra, et libertates suas illesas; et ita volumus observari; quod apparet ex eo quod libertatem electionum, que maxima et magis necessaria reputatur ecclesie Anglicane, mera et spontanea voluntate, ante discordiam inter nos et barones nostros motam, concessimus et carta nostra confirmavimus, et earn obtinuimus a domino papa Innocentio tertio confirmai quam et nos observabimus et ab heredibus nostris in perpetuum bona fide volumus observari. Concessimus etiam omnibus liberis hominibus regni nostri, pro nobis et hereibus nostris in perpetuum, omnes libertates subscriptas habendas et tenendas eis et heredibus suis, de nobis et heredibus nostris.


1. In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever, that the English church shall be free, and shall have its rights entire, and its liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to the English church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from the lord Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs forever. We have also granted to all the free men of our realm, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written below, to have and to hold to them and their heirs, of us and our heirs.

63. Quare volumus et firmiter precipimus quod Anglicana ecclesia libera sit et quod homines in regno nostro habeant et teneant omnes prefatas libertates, jura, et concessiones, bene et in pace, libere et quiete, plene et integre, sibi et heredibus suis, de nobis et heredibus nostris, in omnibus rebus et locis, in perpetuum, sicut predictum est. Juratum est autem tam ex parte nostra quam ex parte baronum, quod hec omnia supradicta bona fide et sine malo ingenio observabuntur. Testibus supradictis et multis aliis. Data per manum nostram in prato quod vocatur Ronimed. inter Windlesoram et Stanes, quinto decimo die junii, anno regni nostri decimo septimo. 

63. Wherefore it is our will, and we firmly enjoin, that the English Church be free, and that the men in our kingdom have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably, freely and quietly, fully and wholly, for themselves and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all respects and in all places for ever, as is aforesaid. An oath, moreover, has been taken, as well on our part as on the part of the barons, that all these conditions aforesaid shall be kept in good faith and without evil intent. Given under our hand—the above–named and many others being witnesses—in the meadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign.

These freedoms were peculiarly of an ancient ecclesiastical origin. Chapter 1 of Magna Carta states, (and Chapter 63 confirms), that the English church should be free, enjoying its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired. The freedom of the church to be able to elect its leaders was "of the utmost necessity and importance to the English church". These clauses recognised the existence of an English Church, and guaranteed its rights. By "liberty" this meant for the reformers of the Church, i.e. adherents of the the reforms established by Pope Gregory VII, that the clergy had the entire freedom to be self-governing, and especially had the freedom to hold their own episcopal and monastic elections without fear of any intervention or pressure from lay rulers. These principles were later reiterated later by several successors to Pope Gregory VII, and became subsequently formally embodied in a number of the canons of the Third (1179) and Fourth (1215) Lateran Councils. Further, it has to be remembered that Becket had declared that it had been his principal aim to preserve the liberty of the church, and this had been the central motive behind his struggle, (what it had been all about), and for which cause in the end he was murdered.

The phraseology of Magna Carta, especially in these chapters, had precedents in both Roman and Canon Law. Magna Carta's Chapters 1 (and 63) enacted into English Law those parts of the Canon Law in which these freedoms of the Church were already clearly defined. For example, the formal Canon Law states at several points in its Corpus, that any statutes which contravened the principles of full ecclesiastical liberty. were to be declared null and void. Now it seems Becket may have essentially won, by his dramatic murder and his subsequent canonization, the right for the Canon Law of the Church of Rome to be introduced and taught in England, a matter which many of the kings before Henry II had tried to prevent, especially witness the silencing of Vacarius, who had tried to teach Canon Law at Oxford. Magna Carta has to be the clearest example of Becket's victory.


It was the dispute of the nomination of Stephen Langton to the archepiscopacy of Canterbury - Langton had been educated at Paris and was a devotee of Becket. This forced the community of monks at Canterbury to flee to Saint-Omer, pope Innocent III to  lay an interdict on England and the excommunication of king John. It is significant to note that Langton spent his time in exile at Pontigny.

Indeed Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, successor to Becket, and hero of the Magna Carta, in 1220  later organised the ceremony translating of the relics of Thomas Becket into the new and splendid shrine lately finished for him in Canterbury Cathedral in the Trinity Chapel. The ceremony was one of the grandest that had ever been seen in England. Becket surely has to have been Langton's paragon.


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