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The Magna Carta | Main Ideas

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Arrangements after Death

Many of the sections of the Magna Carta detail what happens when a landowner dies. The feudal system allowed the king the right to collect a "relief" from an heir before allowing the inheritance to pass on. And it allowed the king or someone appointed by the king to profit from the estate if the heirs were underage. Widows had a particularly difficult road after their husbands died. The king could decide whom the widowed woman would marry, and widows were sometimes left without money or a place to live. Heirs of those who died without wills or with debts needed special arrangements and provisions to make sure they were treated fairly. Sections 2 and 3 place limits and rules around the reliefs paid by heirs. Sections 4, 5, and 37 ensure fair treatment of underage heirs. Sections 6 and 7 apply to the rights of widows. Sections 10, 11, and 26 present rules concerning payment of debts after a person's death. Section 27 specifies what happens if a person dies without a will.

Right to an Orderly Justice System

A disorderly court system leads to corruption and delays (or failure) in resolving conflicts and dispensing justice. In contrast, an orderly system in which disputes can be resolved and criminals tried and punished is essential to justice and peace. The Magna Carta contains instructions for when and where courts could take place and who was able to preside over them. For example, Section 17 states that the courts will not follow the king as he moved from place to place but will be in a fixed location. Section 18 states that some kinds of court hearings will take place locally. The Magna Carta also contains instructions for determining guilt based on credible witnesses and limitations on punishments for crimes. For example, Section 20 states the fine for a crime should be in proportion to the nature of a crime. That is, a small fine should be applied for a small crime and a greater fine for a greater crime.

The King Must Obey the Law

Throughout the Magna Carta, King John agrees to right his wrongs and remedy his abuses of power. He agrees to collect only reasonable fees and taxes, and in Section 55 to return fines demanded unfairly. In Section 47 the king agrees to return land he had claimed for his own use. Sections 49, 58, and 59 arrange for the return of hostages taken from England, Wales, and Scotland. Sections 52, 56, and 57 require the king to return land and rights seized unfairly. Section 61 specifies the barons may use almost any means necessary to hold him accountable. The Magna Carta places the king firmly under the law, not above it.

Freedom from Unreasonable Payments

Many of the abuses King John was guilty of—and which greatly angered his barons—had to do with payments of various kinds. After losing his French territories, John needed money to keep fighting for them. But he had to rely on his English resources only. He managed to find plenty of devious ways to extract money from the kingdom. He raised all kinds of payments, instituted unreasonable additional fees, and raised tolls and taxes on merchants and trade. In the Magna Carta, he promises to abolish certain kinds of payments to the Crown and keep others at reasonable levels. Section 41 states the king will allow merchants to travel without unfair payments. In Section 12 the king agrees to stop asking for payments called "aids" from his barons, except for a few cases. He agrees to keep these special cases to reasonable limits.

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