|King John signs the great charter: June 15, 1215|
Magna Carta is a remarkably unremarkable document. A single sheet of parchment, granted by King John in a field, and repealed ten weeks later, has nevertheless gone down in history as the beginning of our modern democracy- the first step along the way to limiting the arbitrary power of our rulers.
Or so the story goes. The ‘Great Charter’ was sealed (not signed, as is often believed) by King John when faced with the rebellion of his barons. John’s rule had been spectacularly unsuccessful, at least in the eyes of his most prominent subjects. He had murdered his nephew, Prince Arthur, dared to collect taxes, tried to marry a woman who had already been betrothed, been excommunicated by the Pope, and, most spectacularly, had lost most of his land in France. Faced with armed revolt, King John had little choice but to give his assent to a series of restrictions on his power. Magna Carta was never intended to be permanent. John, hoping that he had placated the nobility, then declared the Pope his feudal overlord and refused to obey his barons, whom Pope Innocent soon excommunicated. Prince Louis of France pledged his support for the nobility and the country was plunged into civil war. War was soon over, Magna Carta repealed and John dead from dysentery.
|Magna Carta: "a remarkably unremarkable document"|
Why then, did the Great Charter endure? It was just one of thousands of similar charters granted across the medieval Europe and not copied into the King’s own collection of statutes until 1297. A final and definitive issue of Magna Carta was not sent out to the counties until 1300 and it was subsequently ignored by later monarchs. Shakespeare failed to mention it in his play about the era, King John, and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell referred to it as ‘Magna Farta’. Furthermore, most of the original sixty or so clauses, many of which sought to rectify specific grievances against John, now seem of completely out of date. Few, for instance, would raise an eyebrow if the Charter’s prohibition on the fishing of weirs on the River Thames was again enforced.
It is, perhaps, just two clauses, 39 and 40, that have cemented Magna Carta’s place in our national story: “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. To no one will we see, to no one shall we deny or delay right or justice.” This is not, it should be clear, liberty as we understand it today. The concept of democracy would have been anathema to most in the 13th century and Magna Carta applied only to the ‘free men’ of England- 10% of medieval society. Yet the meaning is clear to see. No man, not even the King, was to be above the law.
It is an idea that has echoed down the ages. It is in the Petition of Right, the English Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the United Nations Charter. It is been appealed to by everyone from the oppressed subjects of the British Raj, to Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley when protesting against his detention. It is there in outrage against the suspension of habeas corpus (which was erroneously believed to have originated in Magna Carta) during the economic crisis that followed the Napoleonic Wars. It is there in the radical defence of Queen Caroline against the tyrannical George IV. It is there in the mass petitions of the Chartists. ‘I am prepared to die,’ spoke Nelson Mandela, in fighting to bring the rights he believed enshrined in Magna Carta to Apartheid South Africa.
Magna Carta has therefore, been revered not so much for what King John originally granted, but for what it has subsequently come to symbolise. And surely in world where protestors are shot dead by military snipers, where corrupt governments remain untouched, where minorities are persecuted, where war is still a daily occurrence, where women are second class citizens, and where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, the embryonic freedoms written in Magna Carta remain more important than ever.
The fight against oppression in all its forms continues, thanks not least to King John and his Great Charter of 1215.