Magna Carta – The enduring power of the written word

King John sealing Magna Carta at Runnymede

King John sealing Magna Carta at Runnymede

Safeguarding the liberties – and rights – of people is something we almost take for granted in the Western World; though at times some feel it’s a tenuous mirage. But back in the good old medieval days, the head honcho of the realm, aka the monarch, often thought differently. Even before King John begrudgingly stamped his seal on Magna Carta, England’s rulers had tried to keep their feisty barons under control with weasel-worded empty promises. Henry I’s Coronation Charter (1100) made reference to privileges of the clergy and nobles in an attempt to pacify many after the abuses levelled out by his father, William II; he had been a brutal man. But thereafter, his promises seemed to simply gather dust. And when John ascended the throne in 1199, what had been a poor regal follow up then plummeted even further.

A man of empty words

It’s well known that John did not leave a good track record. He was selfish, tyrannical, and rather poor at his job. A disastrous foreign campaign drained his resources and prompted him to raid and sell churches to refill his coffers, whilst he also bludgeoned his barons with heavy taxes. Scutage – the charge levied in lieu of military service – skyrocketed. And thus, having locked horns with clerics and offended the Pope, he next found himself excommunicated.

So you can start to understand how matters came to a head in just a few years, and how by 1215 the barons had had enough. They rebelled. John’s resources were still limited and so he resorted to his old tricks; delay through negotiation. On the 10th June, 1215, he met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and the leading barons of the day at Runnymede, not far from Windsor Castle.

The word vs the sword

Metaphorically over a barrel, he had to capitulate to the understandable demands being made, namely to stop riding roughshod over reasonable and lawful customs. The Charter of Liberties –later to became known as Magna Carta – was thrashed out and sealed on 15th June. It took the barons four days to agree to renew their oaths of allegiance, but they did. And by 24th June, the swiftly prepared copies of the charter – splattered with spelling mistakes – were distributed around the land.

The enduring power of the word

In truth, much of Magna Carta is actually just focused on issues poignant for the time; scutage, fines, forests, the behaviour of officials, the standardisation of crop measures etc. However, one particular clause, 39, does stand out. And this clause is the reason the document has been hailed for centuries as the first proper introduction to the rights of the individual.

“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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

As already mentioned, it’s said that it is this clause that inspired the development of English democracy, liberty, and the law, including the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. And many hail it to be the foundation stone for parliamentarianism, though in truth that’s probably a bit grand. What is significant, however, is that it marks the curbing of the monarch’s power. For the first time, the king was no longer above the law, and twenty five barons were elected to oversee his compliance and were armed with the clout of being able to confiscate property if he broke the terms. The aforesaid mention of guarantees for justice and a block on imprisonment without reason were actually somewhat neither here nor there at the time, but they certainly developed prominence in later centuries.

As was John’s way, it transpired that he’d only agreed to the whole thing to get himself out of a sticky situation. Before long he’d forgotten his pledges. And to add to the Barons’ consternation, he then also managed to patch things up with the Pope, who in turn declared the charter null and void; even then seals obtained under duress were frowned upon.

Empty words come back to bite

And so the First Barons’ War (1215-1217) began, and John’s ignominious demise took place half way through as a result of a nasty dose of dysentery. His son and heir, Henry III, was just nine, and was not ready to ascend the throne in anything but a token way, so much of the thinking that took place for the next three years was carried out by William Marshal. Very fortunate, in the scheme of things, for Marshal was a wise and fair main. And through his steady treatment of all involved, Henry soon secured victory over the barons and the Charter of Liberties was revised in 1216, 1217, and 1225.

And so England breathed more easily for a while. However, in 1264 the next Barons’ War then erupted, which culminated in another victory for Henry, but not before Simon de Montfort, the rebelling leader of the barons, had called a parliament in 1265. And this is what is perhaps referred to as the fledgling concept of modern parliamentarianism, for local representatives were included.

From written word to statute

But it wasn’t until 1297 that Henry’s son, Edward I, ensured Magna Carta was entered onto the statute roll. Thus paving the way for the concept of freedom from imprisonment except by the judgement of one’s peers or the law of the land to be enshrined.

In the cold light of day, one has to accept that Magna Carta was really… mostly… a charter addressing the irritations of the highest ranks in feudal society. But it does provide some reassurance when one also considers that those words that bound the upper echelons then have, over many years, filtered down to protect and address the rights and freedom of all who live in this land… to this day.