Magna Carta – first composed and signed in England in 1215 – is famously the foundation of much of the Constitution of the United States of America. (1) What isn’t usually acknowledged however is that while Magna Carta was to ‘enshrine fundamental liberties in law’ and created a proto-democratic legal precedent, it was also designed to enshrine anti-jewish legislation.
The second clause of Magna Carta contains the requirement that the jewish moneylenders operating under the English crown only try to recover their debts the same way that Christians had to and explicitly stated that jews were not allowed to charge usurious rates of interest. (2)
Now this seems innocuous on the face of it – although this background is occasionally omitted from works of popular history that cover the topic – (3) but think about what it is saying for a moment.
It is necessarily implying that the jewish moneylenders operating under the English crown didn’t follow the same debt recovery practices as their Christian compatriots and charged usurious interests rates. The fact that jews charged usurious interest rates is well-known and well-attested. (4)
Also the debt recovery practices of the jewish moneylenders were notorious, because the jews were the personal property of King John and thus so were their debts. (5) King John was extremely protective of his jewish moneylenders (6) and was heavily in debt to them financially after the English crown lost control of Normandy in 1204 and had to expend a large amount of capital to build up a fleet and an army to mount a counter-invasion. (7)
To get the money to fund the English counter-invasion; John repeatedly taxed his subjects heavily and they were forced to take out loans with what we would now call the ‘approved’ moneylenders – i.e. the jews – and then these debts would be subject to enforcement and recovery by royal officials and troops. (8)
As early as 1207 the jewish moneylenders were already pressing John to use his officials and troops to strip assets and wealth from his subjects to pay the debts. (9) This John proceeded to do in 1208 and began to stoke resentment against both himself and his jewish financial proxies. (10)
This continued in a negative cycle until 1213 and 1214 when John was facing potential revolt all around his kingdom and he forced the jews to reschedule debt payments owed to them, because he feared – rightly as it happens – that a revolt would be occur if they did nothing. (11)
This desperation however didn’t stop the popular revolt led by the barons that was explicitly anti-jewish in its rhetoric (12) and was caused by the behaviour of the jews. (13) This is all the more obvious both because of the anti-jewish clause within Magna Carta itself, (14) but also because when the barons and their forces took the city of London from the King, the first thing they went after was the houses of the jews, found the debt registers contained within them and burned them and the jewish quarter to the ground. (15)
Therefore we can see that contrary to what you may have heard; the origins of Magna Carta are by the very letter of its modern colloquial definition stridently anti-Semitic.
(2) Dan Jones, 2014, ‘Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter’, 1st Edition, Head of Zeus: London, p. 125
(3) For example Stephen Church, 2015, ‘King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant’, 1st Edition, MacMillan: London
(4) Christopher Dyer, 2002, ‘Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, p. 178
(5) Robert Chazan, 2006, ‘The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000-1500’, 1st Edition, Cambridge University Press: New York, p. 160; Ralph Turner, 2003, ‘Magna Carta: Through the Ages’, 1st Edition, Pearson Longman: New York, p. 93
(6) Marc Morris, 2015, ‘King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta’, 1st Edition, Windmill: London, p. 188
(7) Ralph Turner, 2005, ‘King John: England’s Evil King?’, 2nd Edition, Tempus: Stroud, p. 74
(8) Ibid, p. 75; Turner, ‘Magna Carta’, Op. Cit., p. 44
(9) Turner, ‘King John’, Op. Cit., p. 80
(10) Ibid, p. 81
(11) Ibid, p. 174
(12) Richard Huscroft, 2006, ‘Expulsion: England’s Jewish Solution’, 1st Edition, Tempus: Stroud, pp. 61-62
(13) Jones, Op. Cit., pp. 74-75; Turner, ‘King John’, Op. Cit., pp. 168-169; Turner, ‘Magna Carta’, Op. Cit., p. 47
(14) Turner, ‘King John’, Op. Cit., p. 184
(15) Morris, Op. Cit., p. 251