During the COVID-19 pandemic, some in the United Kingdom pointed to “Article 61” of the Magna Carta as justifying “lawful rebellion”. What exactly is Article 61?
Article 61 of the Magna Carta describes the right of a group of 25 English barons to express their displeasure with the reigning monarch, including possible rebellion. This right did not extend to the general public, except where they allied with those barons.
For more on Article 61 of the Magna Carta and why it doesn’t apply today, read on.
Magna Carta, which is Latin for “The Great Charter”, was issued by King John of England in 1215. John, who had inherited the throne following the death of his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, was considered one of the least popular monarchs in English history.
As a way of appeasing rebellious barons, King John issued a document called Magna Carta. It contained 63 clauses, each of which attempted to address some of the complaints of the English nobility.
Despite its somewhat self-serving origins, Magna Carta contained a number of principles that are still considered to be fundamental rights in Britain today. Article 39, the most famous and enduring of those included in the document, stated that all free men had the right to a fair trial.
Magna Carta marked the first time that many of these principles had been written in an official document by a European monarch. The charter underwent numerous revisions, with almost a third of the document altered within a decade of its original issue.
John’s attempt at appeasing the discontent in England was unsuccessful, with neither the King nor the rebel barons obeying the rules contained within Magna Carta. In 1225, John’s son, King Henry III, issued an updated version in return for a new tax.
In the following centuries, Magna Carta served as inspiration for others who were writing constitutional documents. These included the United States Bill of Rights, written almost 600 years later in 1791, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948.
Article 61 or, more accurately, Clause 61 of the Magna Carta addresses the right to express discontent with the English monarch and “seek redress”. It specifically mentions that a group of 25 barons would have this right and that the other barons could elect a new member when one left their position for whatever reason.
Essentially, Clause 61 attempts to prevent rebellions by granting the barons additional freedom to express their displeasure with the monarch. It states that a group of four barons could approach the monarch with a complaint and that the King would then have 40 days to address the problem in a way that would satisfy the barons.
If they failed to do so, the barons would then have the right to launch a full rebellion against the monarch. Once satisfied that they had accomplished their goals, the barons would then be expected to resume their usual service to the crown.
The clause also specifies that the wider population could express their discontent by pledging themselves to the cause of a rebellious baron. A commoner had no legal right to rebel against the crown unless they did so under the banner of the nobility.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some individuals in Britain invoked “Article 61” of the Magna Carta in opposition to lockdown and business restrictions. They claimed that the document protected their right to disobey the law as British citizens if they felt their freedom was being infringed upon.
In reality, there were a number of reasons that this wasn’t the case. Clause 61 specifically addressed the rights of 25 barons and not the general public, except where the public cooperated with those barons.
Additionally, the clause only appears in the original, 1215 edition of the Magna Carta. It had been removed just a year later in the 1216 version and did not appear in Henry III’s “final” version in 1225.
Despite its influence, only three of the original 63 clauses are still in effect in the 21st Century. One of these is the right to a fair trial, which is now considered a fundamental human right around the world. The other two are more specific, addressing the rights of the English Church and the people of London.
Magna Carta has influenced English law since it was written in 1215. However, its contents do not override the present-day legal system.