Magna Carta and Women

Text of Magna Carta

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The 800-year old document referred to as Magna Carta has been celebrated over time as the beginning of a foundation of personal rights under British law, including for systems based on British Law like the legal system in the United States of America, or a return to the personal rights that had been lost under Norman occupation after 1066.

The reality, of course, is that the document was only meant to clarify some matters of the relationship of the king and the nobility; that day’s “1 percent.” The rights didn’t, as they stood, apply to the vast majority of residents of England. The women affected by the Magna Carta were also largely the elite among women: heiresses and wealthy widows.

Under common law, once a woman was married, her legal identity was subsumed under that of her husband: the principle of coverture. Women had limited property rights, but widows had a bit more ability to control their property than other women did. The common law also provided for dower rights for widows: the right to access a portion of her late husband's estate, for her financial maintenance, until her death.

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The Background

The 1215 version of the document was issued by King John of England as an attempt to pacify rebelling barons. The document primarily clarified elements of the relationship between the nobility and the king’s power, including some promises related to areas where the nobility believed that the king’s power had been overstepped (converting too much land to royal forests, for instance).

After John signed the original version and the pressure under which he signed it was less urgent, he appealed to the Pope for an opinion on whether he had to abide by the provisions of the charter. The Pope found it “illegal and unjust” because John had been compelled to agree to it, and said that the barons should not require it be followed nor should the king follow it, on pain of excommunication.

When John died the next year, leaving a child, Henry III, to inherit the crown under a regency, the charter was resurrected to help guarantee support of the succession. An on-going war with France also added pressure to keep the peace at home. In the 1216 version, some of the more radical limits on the king were omitted.

A 1217 reconfirmation of the charter, reissued as a peace treaty, was the first to be termed magna carta libertatum” – great charter of liberties – later to be shortened simply to Magna Carta.

In 1225, King Henry III reissued the charter as part of an appeal to raise new taxes. Edward I reissued it in 1297, recognizing it as part of the law of the land. It was regularly renewed by many subsequent monarchs when they succeeded to the crown.

The Magna Carta played a part in British and then American history at many subsequent points, used to defend ever further expansions of personal liberties, beyond the elite. Laws evolved and replaced some of the clauses, so that today, only three of the provisions are in effect pretty much as written.

The original document, written in Latin, is one long block of text. In 1759, William Blackstone, the great legal scholar, divided the text into sections and introduced the numbering that is common today.

What Rights?

The charter in its 1215 version included many clauses. Some of the “liberties” guaranteed in general were:

  • A limit on the right of the king to tax and to demand fees
  • Guarantees of due process when charged in court
  • Freedom from royal rule over the English church
  • Clauses about royal forests, including returning some land converted to forests under John to public lands, and a prohibition of fish farms in rivers
  • Clauses about limits on and responsibilities of Jewish moneylenders, but also extending the limits and responsibilities to “other than Jews” who lent money
  • Standard measures for some common products like cloth and ale
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Why Protect Women?

John, who signed the Magna Carta of 1215, in 1199 had put aside his first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, probably already intending to marry Isabella, heiress to Angoulême, who was only 12-14 at their marriage in 1200. Isabella of Gloucester was a wealthy heiress, too, and John retained control over her lands, taking his first wife as his ward, and controlling her lands and her future.

In 1214, he sold the right to marry Isabella of Gloucester to the Earl of Essex. Such was the right of the king and practice that enriched the coffers of the royal household. In 1215, Isabella’s husband was among those rebelling against John and forcing John to sign the Magna Carta. Among the provisions of the Magna Carta: limits on the right to sell remarriages, as one of the provisions which constrained a wealthy widow’s enjoyment of a full life.

The few clauses in the Magna Carta were designed to stop such abuses of wealthy and widowed or divorced women.

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Clauses 6 and 7

6. Heirs shall be married without disparagement, yet so that before the marriage takes place the nearest in blood to that heir shall have notice.

This was meant to prevent false or malicious statements promoting the marriages of an heir, but also required that heirs notify their nearest blood relatives before marrying, presumably to allow those relatives to protest and to intervene if the marriage seemed forced or otherwise unjust. While not directly about women, it could protect a woman’s marriage in a system where she did not have full independence to marry whomever she wanted.

7. A widow, after the death of her husband, shall forthwith and without difficulty have her marriage portion and inheritance; nor shall she give anything for her dower, or for her marriage portion, or for the inheritance which her husband and she held on the day of the death of that husband; and she may remain in the house of her husband for forty days after his death, within which time her dower shall be assigned to her.

This protected the right of a widow to have some financial protection after marriage and to prevent others from seizing either her dower or other inheritance she might be provided with. It also prevented her husband’s heirs from making the widow vacate her home immediately on the death of her husband.

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Clause 8

8. No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husband; provided always that she gives security not to marry without our consent, if she holds of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another.

This permitted a widow to refuse to marry and prevented (at least in principle) others from coercing her to marry. It also made her responsible for getting the king’s permission to remarry, if she was under his protection or guardianship, or to get her lord’s permission to remarry, if she was accountable to a lower level of nobility. While she could refuse to remarry, she was not supposed to marry just anyone. Given that women were assumed to have less judgment than men were, this was supposed to protect her from unwarranted persuasion.

Over the centuries, a good number of wealthy widows married without the necessary permissions. Depending on the evolution of the law about permission to remarry at the time, and depending on her relationship with the crown or her lord, she might incur heavy penalties or forgiveness.

John’s daughter, Eleanor of England, secretly married the second time, but with the support of the then-king, her brother, Henry III. John’s second great-granddaughter, Joan of Kent, made several controversial and secret marriages. Isabelle of Valois, queen consort to Richard II who was deposed, refused to marry the son of her husband’s successor and returned to France to remarry there. Her younger sister, Catherine of Valois, was queen consort to Henry V; after Henry’s death, rumors of her involvement with Owen Tudor, a Welsh squire, led to Parliament forbidding her remarriage without the king’s consent, but they married anyway (or had already married), and that marriage led to the Tudor dynasty.

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Clause 11

11. And if anyone die indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; and if any children of the deceased are left under age, necessaries shall be provided for them in keeping with the holding of the deceased; and out of the residue the debt shall be paid, reserving, however, service due to feudal lords; in like manner let it be done touching debts due to others than Jews.

This clause also protected the financial situation of a widow from moneylenders, with her dower protected from being demanded for use to pay her husband’s debts. Under usury laws, Christians could not charge interest, so most moneylenders were Jews.

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Clause 54

54. No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman, for the death of any other than her husband.

This clause wasn’t so much for protection of women but prevented a woman’s appeal from being used to imprison or arrest anyone for death or murder. The exception was if her husband was the victim. This fits within the larger scheme of understanding of a woman as both unreliable and having no legal existence other than through her husband or guardian.

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Clause 59, the Scottish Princesses

59. We will do towards Alexander, king of Scots, concerning the return of his sisters and his hostages, and concerning his franchises, and his right, in the same manner as we shall do towards our other barons of England, unless it ought to be otherwise according to the charters which we hold from William his father, formerly king of Scots; and this shall be according to the judgment of his peers in our court.

This clause deals with the specific situation of the sisters of Alexander, king of Scotland. Alexander II had allied himself with the barons fighting King John, and had brought an army into England and even sacked Berwick-upon-Tweed. Alexander’s sisters were held as hostages by John to assure a peace — John’s niece, Eleanor of Brittany, was held with the two Scottish princesses at Corfe Castle. This assured the return of the princesses. Six years later, John’s daughter, Joan of England, married Alexander in a political marriage arranged by her brother, Henry III.

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Summary: Women in the Magna Carta

Most of the Magna Carta had little directly to do with women.

The chief effect of the Magna Carta on women was to protect wealthy widows and heiresses from arbitrary control of their fortunes by the crown, to protect their dower rights for financial sustenance, and to protect their right to consent to the marriage. The Magna Carta also specifically freed two women, the Scottish princesses, who had been held hostage.

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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Magna Carta and Women." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, February 16). Magna Carta and Women. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Magna Carta and Women." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).