This weekend marks the 798th anniversary of the ‘signing’ of The Magna Carta or Great Charter. It is known world-wide as being the founding of modern principles of democracy and individual rights and freedoms while curtailing the power of the State which at the time was King John.
King John has a bad reputation but unlike some monarchs, his is richly deserved. He was an absolute ruler who treated his country and people with disdain. He fought numerous wars in Europe, losing much of his land in the process, he taxed his country like never before and rarely since and even managed to lose the original crown jewels in a swamp in East Anglia (they have never been found so if you fancy making a few hundred million pounds then grab your metal detectors). His rule was so tyrannical that it inspired folk heroes such as Robin Hood to fight for the common man.
The road to the signing of The Magna Carta was quite a long one. the Barons of northern England had already repeatedly rebelled in the decade beforehand. To pay for his wars in France, King John was placing severe taxes on the aristocracy and the huge majority of the people who were little more than peasants. He also started confiscating some of their vast estates.
The northern Barons had already had a history of standing up to the King partly due to the great distance from London but also as the Norman overlords settled down into England, many of them began to make connections with and feel sympathies to the locals where they lived above those they had with the monarch. Additionally, the people in the far north of England were notorious (and to a degree still are) for their independence and unruliness. The Romans built Hadrians Wall across the country there in an attempt to keep things under control and it took several decades before the Normans gained complete control here and only then after The Harrying Of The North which massacred the people and infrastructure to such a degree that 1,000 years later it is still a relatively empty area.
Previous Norman Kings had also faced rebellions and King John had the advantage that their were no pretenders to the throne except for Arthur of Brittany who had disappeared and it is thought he had murdered years earlier. Therefore the Barons simply came out in open rebellion. King John was hoping for assistance from The Pope despite earlier coming into conflict with the Pontiff… another factor that made him unpopular in the eyes of his people.
King John hired a number of mercenaries in an attempt to weaken the forces of the northern forces but with no major standing army of his own and in reality unable to break out of London he was compelled to open into negotiations. The rebellious Barons over a period of 6 months drew up a list of demands which contained a small core of the liberties contained in The Magna Carta.
King John requested to take their grievances directly to the Pope and to be bound by his judgements but the Barons would not compromise. With the support of the French heir apparent, Prince Louis and also of King Alexander II of Scotland, the northerners entered London by force on 10th June 1215. The City of London showed their support for the rebels by opening many of the city gates. Faced by the immediate end of his rule and possibly his life and after much pleading from his more moderate advisers, King John agreed to put his royal seal on the agreement.
Tensions were high as the King knew the Barons documents were a pretext for his overthrow and that even if he signed the document that there was a clause that his property and powers could be taken away if he did not abide by the terms.
The Pope also declared that the document be absolved but the Barons disagreed and England was plunged into war. Soon afterwards King John died and the new King declared he was not bound by The Magna Carta. The unrest continued until as part of the peace treaty at its ending, the King was forced to accept The Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta was signed on June 15th 1215 at Runnymede. Though of course the King actually put his seal on the document rather than physically signing his name. It is important as for the first time it was legalised that the King nor anyone else was above the law.
Other important concepts that came into being was that no-one could be declared guilty of a crime just because an official said so, without any other witnesses or evidence. It guaranteed freedom of the church. Wives would be free to claim their inheritance or share of the marital possessions should their husbands die. London and all towns and cities will be free to trade and without exorbitant custom charges. Trivial crimes should only be met with appropriately light justice and no fines should be made that make it impossible for that person not to continue his livelihood. Sheriffs and bailiffs would not be allowed to assume ownership of horses, carts, food or firewood without the agreement of its owner. No-one was to be denied justice due to unreasonable delays or cost. Only suitable and responsible people will be given public office.
All of these are very worthy and civilised laws that even now, some countries do not enjoy. Of course out of the dozens of clauses there were a few that became quickly outdated such as that no-one could be imprisoned on the word of a woman unless it relates to the murder of her husband.
It must be remembered that the 40 Barons who forced the King into signing were not at the time being so forward thinking as to giving voting rights as in modern democracies. However the idea that people could legally stand up to the King and the State was new and for the first time in history, people had rights. The King was no longer an absolute ruler and this principal was built upon by many brave and visionary people in subsequent centuries from Simon DeMontfort a few decades later who sort to increase the power of Parliament to John Pym who stood up against King Charles I. It also inspired later generations such as William Wilberforce who abolished slavery throughout British territories in 1807, the reforming Victorians that transformed almost everything that culminated with Emmeline Pankhurst who led the Suffragettes to secure votes for women and which continues today with the Gay Marriage bills currently being ratified in Parliament.
The Magna Carta influenced democratic movements around the world including the French and American Revolutions as well as former British Empire territories such as India who to various degrees base their law on The Magna Carta and the laws that followed it.
It is of particular importance in Britain not just because of what it stands for but because we have no written constitution or easily quotable Bill of Rights. Generally constitutions are drawn up upon the birth of a nation or following a revolution and we haven’t really had either.
Instead our laws are all made up from centuries of common law and precedence where by and large earlier laws are the foundation of newer ones with things changing slowly. By having The Magna Carta signed so long ago it has meant that it can be referred to and built upon ever since.
The Magna Carta was one of the key influences on the educated men who drew up the American Constitution who knew no better example of law, democracy and balancing personal freedoms and constraints of the state. In fact the American War of Indepedence was not so much fought for new freedoms but due to fears that the colonists existing freedoms under The Magna Carta and Habeus Corpus were in danger of being eroded. As such a copy of the Magna Carta is displayed in America, Australia and several other countries.
Both the United Nationa Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights took inspiration from this nearly 800 year old document.
In 1957, in deference to The Magna Carta, the American Bar Association on behalf of the United States presented an arboretum at Runnymede to the people of the United Kingdom.
To the present day, Magna Carta is evoked and cited whenever basic freedoms come under threat from over zealous governments, even in the cradle of world democracy itself. David Davis MP, stood down from Parliament in order to fight a by-election on the issue of 42-day detention for suspected terrorists in 2008, Magna Carta providing the casus belli. He won the argument and once again, Magna Carta carried the day.
The Magna Carta was subject to a number of revisions and only a small number of the original survive. I myself visited Salisbury Cathedral to see perhaps the best preserved copy of this document and it was quite something to see it in the flesh. The original is written in a finely written Latin script so I bought myself a laminated poster in English.
Due to the centuries of lawmaking since, the majority of The Magna Carta though not revoked has been superseded by more recent legislation which has built upon the framework of this 798 year old document. It is still hugely popular and important in the public mindset, guaranteeing trial by jury and other civil liberties. The 3 remaining clauses that remain are as follows:
1. Clause 1: The liberties of the English Church
“First, that we have granted to God, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.
“That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church’s elections – a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it – and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity.
“To all free men of our Kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs.”
2. Clause 13: The privileges of the City of London
“The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water. We also will and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall enjoy all their liberties and free customs.”
3. Clauses 39 & 40: The right to trial by jury
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
As Britain does not have a national holiday, June 15th has recently been stated as being the best day to have a national British holiday, beating other contenders such as D-Day, VE Day, Remembrance Day and Trafalgar Day.
On the 800th anniversary a large number of events are going to be held in English speaking nations around the world including the issuing of stamps, flying of flags and a joint British-American honour guard, a new visitor centre at Runnymede and commemorations up and down the land including a national holiday.
If you want to learn more about The Magna Carta then visit the official site of the 800th anniversary celebrations.
Out of the 63 clauses, my favourite is this one:
“No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”
Happy Magna Carta Day!
To read the full text of the Magna Carta then my more recent post has it all.