Even as English emigrants began the settlement of colonies in North America, England itself became enmeshed in political and religious conflict, in which ideas of liberty played a central role. The struggle over English liberty in the first half of the seventeenth century expanded the definition of freedom at home and spilled over into early English North America.
By 1600, the traditional definition of “liberties” as a set of privileges confined to one or another social group still persisted, but alongside it had arisen the idea that certain “rights of Englishmen” applied to all within the kingdom. This tradition rested on the Magna Carta (or Great Charter) of 1215. An agreement between King John and a group of barons—local lords whose private armies frequently fought against each other and the crown—the Magna Carta attempted to put an end to a chronic state of civil unrest. It listed a series of “liberties” granted by the king to “all the free men of our realm.” This was a restricted group at the time, since a large part of the English population still lived as serfs—peasants working land owned by feudal lords and legally bound to provide labor and other services. The liberties mentioned in the Magna Carta included protection against arbitrary imprisonment and the seizure of one’s property without due process of law.
The Court of Common Pleas. Trial by jury was a central element in the definition of “English liberty.” This watercolor appeared in a three-volume series, The Microcosm of London (1808-1810).
The principal beneficiaries of the Magna Carta were the barons, who obtained the right to oversee the king’s conduct and even revolt if he violated their privileges. But over time, the document came to be seen as embodying the idea of “English freedom”—that the king was subject to the rule of law, and that all persons should enjoy security of person and property. These rights were embodied in the common law, whose provisions, such as habeas corpus (a protection against being imprisoned without a legal charge), the right to face one’s accuser, and trial by jury came to apply to all free subjects of the English crown. And as serfdom slowly disappeared, the number of Englishmen considered “freeborn,” and therefore entitled to these rights, expanded enormously.