The Magna Carta & The Constitutions of Clarendon: Definition & Significance

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  • 0:06 King Henry II
  • 1:56 The Constitutions of Clarendon
  • 3:10 The Magna Carta
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

In the High Middle Ages, rulers fought for supreme power. This lesson explores two of the earliest documents to limit power of an authority figure, whether it was the pope or a king.

King Henry II

In the High Middle Ages, which spanned from the 11th to the 13th century, the Catholic Church had a considerable amount of power. The Pope's influence expanded to secular politics and even military actions. In the 11th century, the Pope called for Christians to fight against the Muslims to reclaim the Holy Land in the Near East. A holy war like this one is called a Crusade.

Kings heeded the Pope's orders and joined in the war. As Crusaders returned from the East, they brought with them manuscripts and texts that had been composed by ancient Mediterranean societies. Included were works of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, scientists, astronomers and mathematicians.

Previously, education had been reserved for clergy members and was controlled in monasteries. Due to the accessibility of these new texts and a need for literacy outside of the Church, secular schools developed in villages that were not under the supervision of the Church. Teachers gave students a classical education, meaning they taught students to reason and debate ideas with each other under the ideals of ancient writers. No longer relying upon the Church for education and armed with classical ideals, people began to call for a reform against the Church that held so much authority in the world.

One man who saw an opportunity to gain from a lessening of papal power was King Henry II. King Henry II had many titles in his lifetime. He was Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Nantes and King of England from 1154 to 1189.

Henry worked to gain English control over lands that had been lost. He expanded his control to Wales, Anjou and Maine. His expansion led him to fighting with King Louis VII of France as he took over French territories. Henry recognized the Church as a threat to his power. Henry also saw a problem in the treatment of criminals who happened to be members of the clergy.

The Constitutions of Clarendon

Clergy who were accused of a crime of a secular nature did not receive the same trial as a layperson. Instead, they were tried in an ecclesiastical, or Church, court. An ecclesiastical court could not dole out the same punishments as a secular court. These courts were forbidden from shedding blood. While a violent criminal could be punished by death in a royal court, an ecclesiastical court could only remove the clergy member from office.

Henry felt that the punishments the Church was allowed to issue were not adequate. The king created the Constitutions of Clarendon to require clergy criminals to be tried in a royal court. Under the Constitutions, an officer of the king would be present during the trial in ecclesiastical court, and, after the criminal was sentenced accordingly, the officer would escort the criminal to the king's court for further trial.

Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury at this time. That basically means he was the top bishop in England. Becket disagreed with the king's ruling and argued that criminals were being put on trial twice for the same crime. Though the king and the archbishop had once been friends, the Constitutions created a lasting and bitter conflict between them. Bickering went on between the two for years until Becket was murdered by knights who were trying to remove him from a cathedral during mass.

The Magna Carta

King Henry II was succeeded in reign by his oldest son King Richard, known as Richard the Lionheart. Richard died while fighting abroad in the Crusades, leaving England in the hands of his younger brother John. Peasants, under the feudal system, faced heavy taxes.

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