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Magna Carta: Wales, Scotland and Ireland

Magna Carta is a British document. People from all parts of the British Isles came to Runnymede to advise King John and approve the document. Magna Carta contains important chapters that deal with the grievances of Welsh rulers and the King of Scotland.

There are many possible explanations for how the Welsh and Scottish chapters got into Magna Carta. The most likely explanation is that the Welsh rulers and the King of Scotland allied with the baronial rebels before Magna Carta, and the concessions they secured were their reward. The Crowland chronicler, the best informed contemporary historian, refers to such an alliance.

The Welsh and the Scots had every reason to join the rebels. John had achieved greater dominance over Wales and Scotland than any previous English king had managed. In 1211, he forced Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of North Wales, to surrender a large part of north-east Wales, and give him hostages, including his son, Gruffydd, who was about 13, as security. Other Welsh rulers suffered in similar ways.

In 1209, John forced King William of Scotland to hand over his daughters, Margaret and Isabella. One was to be married to John's son and heir and the other to an English baron. This undertaking was not fulfilled. William also had to give 13 hostages as security for peace. King Alexander II, William's son, wanted redress for this in the Charter. He also wanted the 25 barons appointed to enforce the Charter to sit in judgment on the long-standing Scottish claim to Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumberland. Later in 1215, the 25 barons judged in Alexander's favour.

In chapter 56 of Magna Carta, John promised that, if had dispossessed Welshmen of their lands and liberties in England or Wales without lawful judgment of their peers—their social equals—they would be immediately restored. Any dispute was to be settled by judgment of peers. John secured the concession that if the Welsh had dispossessed him or his men, they would be treated reciprocally. 

In chapter 57, John promised to return Gruffydd immediately to Llywelyn, and also to restore all the hostages of Wales and the charters that he had extracted as security for “peace”, which meant for “good”—or, as the Welsh would have thought it, “servile”—behaviour.

Chapter 59 dealt with Alexander's grievances over his sisters and the hostages, as well as his rights and liberties. John promised to deal with those in the same way as the grievances of the English barons. However, he managed to register a claim that he should not have to do that because of the charters Alexander's father had given him. The Charter stated that this claim should be settled by judgment of Alexander's peers in John's court.

Magna Carta is the first document in which English and Welsh law appear together. It shows the Welsh, Scots and English sharing the same political ideas and procedures. The Welsh appealed to the principle of judgment of peers, believing, like the English, that dispossession without lawful judgment of peers was illegitimate. Alexander was to be treated in the same way as the barons of England or to have judgment of his peers in the English king's court.

John was made Lord of Ireland by his father. In 1210, he took an army there to assert his authority over the Anglo-Irish barons and the native rulers. He was so successful that the 1215 rebellion had no Irish footing and there are no Irish chapters in Magna Carta. However, a copy of the version issued by John's son, Henry III, in 1217 was sent to Ireland, and its concessions were intended to apply there.

This article has been written by Professor David Carpenter, and edited by the Hansard writing team.


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