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Magna Carta :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

Magna Carta

National Archives Displays An Original Copy Of Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 near Windsor, England.  It was signed by King James in an effort to pacify rebel barons.  It originally was meant to protect church rights and property, protection for barons against illegal imprisonment, rights to a swift trial and limitations to payments to the crown.  The document was annulled and then reinstated several times (1216, 1217, and 1225 AD) until it was finally ratified and made an official part of English Law.  Each successive English monarch re-ratified the document and made it a primary source of Parliament’s power.  It solidified a tradition of law and responsibility that helped to protect women from accusations of witchcraft.

A popular myth about the Magna Carta that survived until the late 19th century was that it had its basis in an ancient English constitution.  This constitution was dissolved during the Norman Invasion of 1066.  However, this theory has never been able to be proven.

In the 17th century King James I and later his son King Charles attempted to nullify the document.  They both believed in the divine right of kings and saw the document as a direct threat to their power.  They attempted to nullify the Magna Carta and seize absolute power in England which triggered the English Civil war in 1642.

England was unique in having a document like this.  The Magna Carta played a crucial role in the English tradition of a strong judicial system as the barons needed to defend these rights.  This established a system of checks and balances on both the King and the courts and enabled even those with authority to be held liable for their actions.  These actions prohibited the use of torture in the use of gaining confessions as was common in Scotland.  The prohibition of this type of evidence helped to curtail English witch trials.  Without the elaborate and fanciful tales that torture could provide and the combination of strictly protecting their rights, England gained a tradition of skepticism in their courts.  They had men such as Samuel Harsnett who was a powerful member of the Church and who possessed,”a formidable reputation as a skeptic in matters of witchcraft.”1  The system promoted a strong sense of judicial procedure and laid the legal groundwork that helped to protect women accused of witchcraft in England.

1) Sharpe, James. The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder, and the King of England. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2001. (4).

Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy. Harvard University Press, 2007.

Levack, Brian P., ed. The Witchcraft Sourcebook. “The Discoverie of Witches (ch.52).  1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Magna Carta (England [1215]).”Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Aug. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.


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