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  • Reform in 1215: Magna Carta and the Fourth Lateran Council
  • Ken Pennington

800 years ago, in June and November of 1215, two great events took place that have shaped our imaginations about law, reform, and constitutional and individual rights to the present day: The meeting of King John of England with the magnates of his realm on the fields of Runnymede and the great church council in which the prelates of the Church gathered around Pope Innocent III in the papal basilica San Giovanni in Laterano were focused on the the great issues of the time. Both meeting produced documents that have been interpreted by scholars, read by students, and debated by everyone.

By 1215 King John had lost almost all of his northern continental possessions. The core of the Angevin empire, Normandy, was lost. Anglo-French barons who still held lands in Normandy owed their primary allegiance to King Phillip Augustus, not to King John. The barons and churchmen who remained under his sovereignty chaffed under his rule. It is clear from the document that the barons forced John to sign when they met with John on Runnymede in 15 July 2015, they intended to impose reform on the king. We might sum up their objectives as being the administration of justice and defending their customary rights in what remained of the John’s kingdom.

Magna Carta was a major event in King John’s reign. Because the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, played such a significant role in the affair that took place on Runnymede, scholars have wondered about the connections canon law and its jurisprudence embedded in the Ius commune might have had in the minds of those who drafted the document.1 [End Page 97] A larger question is the relationship of the Ius commune to English common law in the early stages of its development. Charles Donahue wanted to have a word to illustrate the relationship. He chose ‘influence’. Twenty-five years ago he wrote:2

We need a word to tie the ius commune to the common law of England. The standard word is ‘influence’, and the standard meaning of the word is direct borrowing of rules and sometimes broader principles.

That may seem as if it would be a statement that would evoke little controversy in the world of legal history. Nevertheless, it has. Scholarly attempts to explore the ‘influences’ that the jurisprudence of the Ius commune might have had on English common law and Magna Carta have been met with criticism, some of it rather pointed.3 In this essay I will examine possible ‘influences’ that the Ius commune may have had on Magna Carta and the relationship and possible connections between the two most significant reform assemblies in the early thirteenth century: the king, prelates, and barons who gathered at Runnymede and the pope, cardinals, bishops, abbots, and clergy who congregated in San Giovanni in Laterano.

I begin at a strange place, neither in England nor in Rome, but in Rouen, France. A manuscript resides there that dates to the early thirteenth century and belonged to the lepers’ hospital of Saint Gilles in the Norman city of Pont-Audemer. It contains documents related to the hospital and its founding but also contains the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council and cheek by jowl a French translation of Magna Carta.4 James Clarke [End Page 98] Holt had examined the cartulary and published an edition of the French text in 1974.5 Holt tried to explain why Magna Carta was translated into French and why a copy of it found its way into a cartulary of a small foundation in Normandy. He noted that the manuscript copy of Magna Carta had the text of a writ addressed to the sheriff of Hampshire appended to it.6 The writ instructed the sheriff to compel people to obey the twenty five barons who had been designated by the charter to enforce its provisions.7 Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches was appointed the sheriff of Hamsphire in 1216.8

Bishop Peter had an unusually interesting career. Born in Touraine he rose from being the archdeacon in the diocese of Poitiers to become Lord Chamberlain...


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