The Magna Carta and the Early British Parliament

By: Reuben Kua 8C

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1. Describe the beginnings of the common law.

William the Conqueror (Duke of Normandy)

The common law developed over the years between William the Conqueror and King Henry II. As William the Conqueror became king, not only did he start the feudal system, he also started the very beginning of the common law. He set up a Kings court, in order for him to have some control over the legal system.  As William appointed his judges, he encouraged his nobles to settle their disputes by Kings Judges. At this point, the Kings Court did not travel often and only nobles had the advantage of the Kings court or royal justice, many still had to endure trial by ordeal.

During King Henry II reign, he furthered this cause of royal justice, by deciding all (common among everyone [peasants, lords etc.] thus being called common law) should be judged by the Kings Court. These trip’s the Kings court took around the country, became more frequent. King Henry II introduced trial by jury, which included 12 or more people who heard the facts and gave evidence.

As the judges and juries travelled around adjudicating cases, they would return and meet up with each other, discussing laws and customs, selecting the best customs. These slowly spread out throughout England becoming common among different judges, thus being called the common law. These laws got passed down and around to different countries which England expanded and colonized, thus many countries such as Australia, U.S.A, Canada and much more judge by the common law.

2. How were people tried before the common law was introduced?

Before the common law, which included trial by jury and judge (justice of Kings court), came into practice, many people were tried by; trail by ordeal (trial by fire and water) and trail by combat. These ways of finding innocence were completely unfair and not very effective in many ways.

*TRAIL BY ORDEAL* – Is the process of judicial practice during the Middle ages, where the accused is had to go through unpleasant experience, which included trial by fire or trial by water. Often, the innocent would go through with it to prove their innocence, and the guilty would often confess, thus this method was sometimes work.

Trial by Fire – Where the accused had to put their arm in boiling water, or hold a red hot poker. If burn healed in within 3 days, the person was innocent, if not healed within 3 days, it was presumed he/she was guilty.

Trial by Fire

Trial by Water – Where the accused was held under water. The innocent drowned; and the guilty floated to the top.

(The guilty were then often executed.)

Trial by Combat – Where the accused might fight the accuser or hire a knight to fight for them. If they lost, they were guilty; and if they won they were innocent. This option was often only for rich and fortunate people, as peasants and serf didn’t know how to fight well or did not have the money to hire a knight.

Trial by Combat (Early English Illustration)

3. Who introduced the common law and what were the new ideas of the common law that were initiated?

King Henry II

The common law was introduced by William the Conqueror, who decided it would be an advantage to have control of the courts. Thus, William set up the King’s court, which were sent to settle important cases. King Henry II furthered this during his reign over England. At this time, people were still being trialled by ordeal and combat to prove their innocence. King Henry II decided all the people should be tried by the Kings Court, thus giving the people the opportunity for royal justice. This brought about the idea of juries etc.

The introduction of being tried by the Kings Court, was made common by King Henry II during his reign, thus being called the common law. During this time, though other courts continued such as the Village courts, Manor Courts, and Church Courts, the Kings Court started to travel around England hearing cases and recording the decisions. These decisions were made by Judges who the King thought were trustworthy. After recording these decisions, the Judges could refer back to them if a similar case is heard, thus being fair. King Henry II also introduced the trial by jury, where a group of 12 people or more, heard the facts and gave evidence about the case.

Soon, the trials by ordeal and combat were completely replaced by trail by judge and jury. The Kings Court gave the people the opportunity for royal justice and to be judged fairly and accordingly. By the fifteenth century, The English Justice System was made up of the well-established jury system.

4. What is a Magna Carta and who was involved in the singing of the Magna Carta?

One of the most important and significant events in the medieval era, is the signing of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta, also known as the ‘Great Charter’, brought much justice to the people of England. It reduced the Kings power, and gave more power to the Barons and the People. It also gave much structure to the modern-day parliament in England. The Magna Carta stated and contained 37 English laws, some new, some old and some recollected, in the form of a document. The signing of the Magna Carta, was forced upon King John of England, by the barons of England. The Magna Carta was the beginning of a Constitutional England.

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was a vital agreement, about the rights of individuals, protecting them from unfair monarchs. At that time, King John signed the Magna Carta as a peace agreement to protect his throne, but many saw it as a document which prevented the King from abusing his powers (e.g. Raising taxes to fund their own campaigns.) In signing the document, King John promised to call up his lords and barons to discuss important matters.

The Magna Carta also gave much structure to the modern-day parliament. The meeting of lords and commoners, we first referred to as Parliaments (parler – to speak in French), to discuss laws, mainly taxes. As this evolved, soon the Great Council was enlarged, including two representatives from every city or county in England. The Magna Carta abolished trail by ordeal, and had commoners trailed by jury, much more fair and just.Many barons, lords, and bishops forced this document upon King John. King John signed the Magna Carta reluctantly under the circumstances that his Kingdom was under control by his barons, and that he might lose his throne.

5. When was the Magna Carta signed?

As many different sources and research supply different information about when the Magna Carta was signed; many say, based on their research, the Magna Carta was signed by King John on the 10th of June 1215. On the 15th of June 1215, the barons all renewed the Oath of Fealty, which was extremely important during the times of Feudalism.

The signing of the Magna Carta was in a Meadow at Runnymede, in Egham, Surrey, South England. This all happened under the watch full and eager eyes of the Bishops, Barons who surprised King John a few days before in full armour.

The forcing of the signing of the Magna Carta occurred 26 years after King Johns reign started. Throughout these years, King John increased taxes to fund his campaigns and other commitments. This caused the uprising of the Barons against King John, thus King John signing the Magna Carta on the 10th of June 1215.

King John reluctantly signing Magna Carta.

6. Describe how the early Parliament is structured and compare that to today’s parliament.

William the Conqueror set up the Great Council, which was made up of Norman Nobles and Bishops (no commoners at this point). The council advised William and helped him rule effectively, but no as often, as the Nobles etc. were busy with their manor and setting up themselves. The Great Council only met 3 times a year, discussing and advising on important matters.

The Great Council slowly grew, with more people, becoming more important in the government. After the Magna Carta was signed, giving more power to nobles and commoners, the parliament we have today started to shape and form. Soon there were separate meetings between the Lords and Commoners, thus giving birth to the House of Lords and House of Commoners.

Today, instead of meeting only 3 times each year, MP’s (members of parliament) meet very often for short and long sessions. The House of Commoners (commoners) have much more power and can put forward bills, formal requests to the House of Lords, to have laws made. This was a privilege and a right many commoners of the medieval period did not have as they did not have any say in parliament.

House of Lords (modern-day)


Conquest of England –

The first Parliaments –

2002, The Making of Modern Britain –

Calender of Sittings –

F. Lee Horn 12 January 2002,(edited by many others)Magna Carta –

Magna Carta 1215 –

Magna Carta –

25/9/1995, The Magna Carta (The Great Charter) –

2006, What did the Magna Carta do? –

King John & the Magna Carta –

August 19 2007, King John and the Magna Carta –

The development of the common law in England and Wales –

10 July 2003, Trial by Ordeal –

Jonkinen, Anniina, A.J, 13 April 2009, Common Law –

Development of Common Law –

BOOK: Maggy Sladais, Ross Smith, Denis Young, 2006 ; Humanities Alive – History 1, Jacaranda plus.