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Under Magna Carta the King cannot impose taxes without the approval of the “common counsel” of the kingdom (1215)

2015 is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Greater Charter of Liberties (Magna Carta) between King John and his nobles in June 1215. Among the many restrictions placed upon the King by the Nobles was the idea that the king could not impose taxes without the approval of the “common counsel” of the Kingdom:

No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid. In like manner it shall be done concerning aids from the city of London.

CHAPTER TWELVE.

Nullum scutagium vel auxilium ponatur in regno nostro, nisi per commune consilium regni nostri, nisi ad corpus nostrum redimendum, et primogenitum filium nostrum militem faciendum, et ad filiam nostram primogenitam [232] semel maritandam, et ad hec non fiat nisi racionabile auxilium: simili modo fiat de auxiliis de civitate Londonie.

“No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid. In like manner it shall be done concerning aids from the city of London.”

This is a famous clause, greatly valued at the time it was framed because of its precise terms and narrow scope (which made evasion difficult), and even more highly valued in after days for different reasons. It came indeed to be interpreted in a broad general sense by enthusiasts who, with the fully–developed British Constitution before them, found in it the modern doctrine that the Crown can impose no financial burden on the people without consent of Parliament. Before discussing how far such an estimate is justified, it will be necessary to examine the historical context, with special reference to two classes, feudal tenants and the citizens of London respectively.

About this Quotation:

The 1914 editor McKechnie warns modern readers not to read back into the past, political and economic ideas which they might hold in the present. In this case, it is the idea that the Crown had surrendered its powers to tax to the people or its representatives. The 13th century English Nobles' demand for “No scutage without general counsel” is not the same as the demand of 18th century North American colonists for “no taxation without representation.” What seems to have happened with many clauses in Magna Carta, was that grants of privilege to specific individuals and groups were later broadened into more general “privileges” or what became known as “rights” to later generations, or in other words “the traditional rights of Englishmen.”. Here is what he said concerning clause 12:

“It is a commonplace of our text–books that chapters 12 and 14, taken together, amount to the Crown’s absolute surrender of all powers of arbitrary taxation, and even that they enunciate a doctrine of the nation’s right to tax itself.1 Yet the very idea of “taxation” in its abstract form, as opposed to specific tallages and exactions, levied on definite things or individuals, is essentially modern. The doctrine of the day was that the King in normal times ought “to live of his own,” like any other land–owning gentleman. A regular scheme of “taxation” to meet the ordinary expenses of government was undreamt of. It is too much to suppose, then, that our ancestors in 1215 sought to abolish something which, strictly speaking, did not exist. The famous clause treats, not of “taxation” in the abstract, but of the scutages and aids already discussed. It does not concern itself with the rights of Englishmen as such, but chiefly with the interests of barons who held freeholds of the Crown, and incidentally and inadequately with those of the citizens of London. Several considerations place this beyond reasonable doubt. … These facts serve as a warning not to read into Magna Carta modern conceptions which its own words will not warrant. This famous clause was far from formulating any doctrine of self–taxation; it primarily affected impositions levied by John, not qua sovereign but qua feudal lord. Such as it was, it was omitted, along with its corollary (chapter 14), in 1216 and subsequent reissues.”

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