England likes to think of itself as a shining beacon of liberty and democracy, and not without reason. Over the course of its long history, the country has developed and enshrined many freedoms which have informed the development of other free countries across the globe. Indeed, when America rose up against British rule in the eighteenth century, it was partly because their traditionally English freedoms had been withdrawn. The founding fathers of the American Revolution – including Thomas Paine in his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense – made constant references to English liberties. More recently, former President George Bush said that the US constitution could trace its lineage back to Magna Carta.
So the most basic freedoms you enjoy today: the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, a say in where your tax money goes…all of these things have a history, and Magna Carta is a wonderful starting point.
We will discuss how Magna Carta came about and why it is so significant. As well as furthering your understanding of the history of English liberties the story has enduring relevance for all who prefer freedom to tyranny in the modern age.
King John took the throne in 1199 after the death of his brother, Richard the Lionheart. Richard had spent most of his reign in foreign lands, crusading on behalf of Catholicism in the Holy Lands. As his name suggests, he had a reputation as a fierce military man and a stout fighter.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Kings relied on their rich and powerful barons to raise taxes and armies for them. At the time, England owned a lot of land in France and the barons possessed much of that land. Since they were making huge sums of money from their French holdings, the barons were prepared to raise taxes and send armies overseas to defend it against invasion and aggression.
It has been said of Richard that he spent a mere six months of his ten year reign in England – the rest being spent on overseas military campaigns. To Richard, England was simply a bank – a generous source of funding for his religious and military fervor.
In order to raise more money Richard was prepared to sell-off his royal holdings and positions of authority to the highest bidder. In essence, he would do anything – short of auctioning London – to raise cash.
Of course, the eventual outcome of this was that upon Richard’s death in 1199 he bequeathed England, and his brother John, with a massive national debt.
It didn’t take long for King John to earn himself a reputation as a capricious, arrogant, violent, avaricious, entitled bully. He was accused of attempting to rape barons’ daughters, locking people up as and when he pleased, torturing his subjects, and levying ever increasing taxes to fund the war in France. Even before he was crowned, John had betrayed his brother Richard by siding with the French king in an attempt to overthrow him and assert his own dominance over England.
This lust for personal power was reflected in his treatment of the nascent legal system. He suspended the King’s Bench court in London along with the assize circuits, thereby forcing anybody who desired royal justice to appear before him personally, wherever he may be.
These tendencies toward evil earned him the posthumous title Bad King John, and got under the barons’ skin. It wasn’t uncommon for a king to be a lecherous ladies’ man with sparse regard for moral boundaries, but John took things to an entirely different level.
On top of these personal issues, John managed to lose vast swathes of territory in France at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Once again the barons, who had financial interests there, were livid.
On top of all these temporal concerns, King John posed a grave spiritual threat to the barons and the entire Catholic population of England. Having rejected the Pope’s nomination for Archibishop, he found himself excommunicated from the Catholic Church. In the modern age of atheism, agnosticism, religious plurality, and watered-down Christianity, this might look like no big deal. But in the pre-scientific thirteenth century, people were very religious. They believed in Heaven and Hell, and they needed to visit church to confess their sins and absolve their souls in order to avoid an eternity of torture in the afterlife. Since John had been excommunicated, church services were effectively banned and everybody was in grave danger. It can be difficult to grasp the gravity of this situation when we are sat at our desks in twenty-first century Europe, but perhaps it was something like an overawing fear of an imminent nuclear explosion.
The barons had had enough. They raised armies and advanced on King John, who was forced to lock himself in the Tower of London for safety.
It was not uncommon for a reigning king to have his authority challenged, but those opposing him tended to rally around an alternative heir to the throne. This was not possible when the barons opposed King John because the only other feasible heir, Arthur, had been murdered in prison – supposedly by King John himself. Put yourself in the shoes of the barons in 1215. You can’t fight for an alternative king but you need to do something to curtail King John’s evil. What would you do?
The Great Charter
The barons drew up a 61 clause charter of liberties for all freemen and forced King John to sign the charter at Runnymede. It’s important to note that the term freemen was a relatively small category and excluded large swathes of the population who were classified as serfs.
This charter became known as Magna Carta, which is a Latin phrase meaning “great charter“. It was truly revolutionary in its content and principles because it recognised that the king of England – recognised in the thirteenth century as ruling by divine right – could have his powers limited by law. Up until then, the king could wave his religious authority around like a magic wand and use his power as it suited him. Only God could judge him.
With the advent of Magna Carta, it was established that the king was limited in his powers and that a greater power – the law – ruled over him. In the twenty-first century we call this concept the rule of law, and in Magna Carta we can see its first flickering embers: the rule of law in embryonic form.
Much of the text of Magna Carta seems esoteric and irrelevant, but two clauses in particular deserve special attention:
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 sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Think about what this means. From this point onward, subjects of England can only be imprisoned or harmed by the state if they have received a quick and fair trial before their peers according to the law of the land. No human being can use his power arbitrarily to send you to prison, only the proper application of the law can take away your freedom.
The principle enshrined in clauses 39 and 40 is known as habeus corpus and it is one of the most fundamental guarantees of a civil and democratic society. Any democracy worthy of the name respects this right universally and does so diligently.
Magna Carta today
Like any freedom won by centuries of struggle, the rights enshrined in Magna Carta are open to abuse by those in power. Sometimes, it makes their lives easier to gradually cut down these freedoms and it usually begins by taking rights away from unpopular minorities or people designated as official enemies.
If you take a look at the above video clip from 2:38 onwards, you’ll hear one of the world’s foremost intellectuals discussing the methods used by the US government to erode or undermine the principles of Magna Carta (which informed the USA’s founding documents, including the constitution).
- Magna Carta was an accident of history. If the barons had been able to promote the cause of an alternative king, it is likely that they would have done so and Magna Carta would never have been born.
- The barons rebelled for a number of reasons: financial, personal, and religious.
- Magna Carta represents the rule of law – the idea that the law is above everybody – in embryonic form.
- It is the responsibility of citizens to defend Magna Carta rights. History tells us that those in power do not always act altruistically, and often prefer to act in their own political best interests.