Twenty or so protesters entered Edinburgh Castle yesterday (Tuesday, 17 August), citing article 61 of the Magna Carta in their claim to have “seized” the landmark. One man has been arrested. The incident has sparked curiosity surrounding the question of who owns Edinburgh Castle. Also, what is the meaning of article 61 of the 1215 Magna Carta, and is it (still) in effect in Scotland?

Who owns Edinburgh Castle?

The Guardian quotes the protesters as saying the castle “belongs to the people”; their “seizure” is, in their words, an effort to “take our power back”.

Taking the castle “back”, for those involved, equates to restoring the “rule of law”.

Edinburgh Castle is one of the oldest fortified inhabited places in Europe. Humans have occupied Castle Rock, on which the castle stands, since the Iron Age. It receives more than two million visitors per year.

who owns edinburgh castle
Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

It has suffered a great many sieges. Most of them, it must be said, involved more weapons, and actual fighting, than yesterday’s.

According to a 2010 governmental report, Edinburgh Castle is officially in the ownership of Scottish ministers, who are heads of the devolved Scottish government. Historic Environment Scotland, an agency of the Scottish government, runs and administers it – although the army runs the barracks and shares the guardroom.

What is the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta, or “Great Charter”, is a royal charter of rights. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote it to make peace between the king and a group of rebellious barons in the early 13th century.

King John of England signed the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. Among its commitments were promises to protect the rights of the church, the freedom of the barons, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. King John wasn’t very happy about it.

article 61 magna carta 1215 meaning
(Original Caption) King John is shown signing the Magna Carta (1215). Undated illustration, after a painting by Chappel.

Nor, in fact, were the barons – or the Pope. As a peace treaty, it failed. Pope Innocent III called it “not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust”.

He declared it “null and void of all validity forever” and demanded it be neither observed nor enforced. King John and the barons renounced it within three months, and went to war. Oh dear.

What is the meaning of article 61 of the Magna Carta?

Article 61 of the 1215 Magna Carta, aka the “security clause”, granted the council of 25 barons specific allowances.

Specifically, according to the letter of article 61, if the king or any of his officials or servants “offend in any respect against any man”, the barons have the right, “with the support of the whole community of the land”, to “seiz[e] our castles, lands, possessions”, and so on.

It thus set out rules for 25 specific barons. Its statutes, by and large, did not apply to the general population.

Is the Magna Carta still in effect?

The Guardian writes the Magna Carta has never applied in Scotland as it predated the Act of Union.

Moreover, article 61 was removed from subsequent versions of the Carta – it was never incorporated into English statutory law.

The 1216 version does not include any reference to clause 61, nor in the “final” 1225 version. So, regardless of who actually owns Edinburgh Castle, clause 61 doesn’t appear to provide any legitimate claim to it. There are those, however, who have argued the barons were representing not only the nobility but all English folk, standing up to tyranny.

who owns edinburgh castle
Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Since the 13th century, numerous other texts pertaining to constitutional principles have changed the political landscape of England, then Great Britain, then the UK.

These include the New Ordinances (1311), the Petition of Right (1628), the Bill of Rights (1689), the Acts of Union between Scotland and England (1706-1707), the Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain (1800), and the Parliament Act 1911.