In this unpredictable, seismic and in many ways scary presidential election year, it benefits us all to cast an eye back to the middle ages when We The People took the first baby steps to cast off the yoke. The writing of the Magna Carta, the ultimatum that questioned the divine right of kings to rule at will, inspired many struggles throughout the ages including that of our own Founding Fathers in crafting the Constitution of the United States of America.
by Dan Jones
Eight hundred years after it was first granted beneath the trees of Runnymede, by the fertile green banks of the river Thames, the Magna Carta is more famous than ever. This is strange. In its surviving forms—there are four known original charters dating from June 1215—the Magna Carta is something of a muddle, a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant king, most of which concern matters of arcane thirteenth-century legal principle. A few of these promises concern themselves with high ideals, but they are few and far between, vague and idealistic statements slipped between longer and more perplexing sentences describing the “customary fee” that a baron ought to pay a king on the occasion of coming into an inheritance, or the protocols for dealing with debt to the Crown, or the regulation of fish traps along the rivers Thames and Medway.
For the most part the Magna Carta is dry, technical, difficult to decipher, and constitutionally obsolete. Those parts that are still frequently quoted—clauses about the right to justice before one’s peers, the freedom from being unlawfully imprisoned, and the freedom of the Church—did not mean in 1215 what we often wish they would mean today. They are part of a document drawn up not to defend in perpetuity the interests of national citizens but rather to pin down a king who had been greatly vexing a small number of his wealthy and violent subjects. The Magna Carta ought to be dead, defunct, and of interest only to serious scholars of the thirteenth century.
Yet it is very much alive, one of the most hallowed documents in the world, revered from the Arctic Circle to the antipodes, written into the constitutions of numerous countries, and admired as a foundation stone in the Western traditions of liberty, democracy, and the rule of law. How did that happen?
The Magna Carta was a peace treaty born of a serious collapse in relations between John, the third Plantagenet king of England, and his barons. The reason for that collapse will be discussed in this book, but the basic thrust of events was simple. A large party of John’s barons, with the assistance of churchmen guided by the impressive archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, demanded that the king confirm in writing (and certify with his Great Seal) a long list of rights and royal obligations that they felt he and his predecessors had neglected, ignored, and abused for too long. These rights and obligations were conceived in part as a return to some semi-imaginary “ancient” law code that had governed a better, older England, which lay in the historical memory somewhere between the days of the last Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, and the more recent times of John’s great-grandfather, Henry I.
The Magna Carta touched on matters of religion, tax, justice, military service, feudal payments, weights and measure, trading privileges, and urban government. Occasionally it reached for grand principle: Famously, John was forced to promise that “no free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” and that “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.” But for the most part what was at issue in 1215 was a tight-knit, technical, and often quite dull shopping list of feudal demands that was mainly of interest to (and in the interests of) a tiny handful of England’s richest and most powerful men. The Magna Carta’s terms applied only to “free men,” who were then at best 10 percent or 20 percent of England’s adult population.
The main novelty of the Magna Carta, often overlooked, was the fact that it proposed a neat but flawed mechanism for ensuring that the king stuck to what he had promised to do. If John reneged on the charter, his barons would renounce their personal loyalty to the king, on which the whole feudal structure of society depended, and start a war. This grave threat was reflected in the words of the charter itself, in which John acknowledged that if he failed to keep the promises he had made, then his barons could “distrain and distress [him] in all ways possible, by taking castles, lands, possessions…saving our person and the persons of our queen and children.”
And that is precisely what happened. On Monday, June 15, 1215, John’s barons compelled him to grant them a charter of rights and privileges, but the king began to wriggle out from beneath its terms almost as soon as the sealing wax was set. The original Magna Carta was legally valid for only a little more than two months, whereupon it was declared “shameful and demeaning…illegal and unjust” by the pope, who decreed that any man who observed the charter would “incur the anger of Almighty God and of St Peter and St Paul His apostles”: a polite way of saying that they would burn in the fires of hell for all eternity.
This provoked full-blown civil war in which towns and castles were besieged, men were slaughtered, the royal treasure was (infamously) lost in boggy ground near the large river estuary in eastern England called the Wash, and the French king’s heir was invited to England to replace John. The war was ended not by a chastened King John’s agreeing to reaffirm the principles of the Magna Carta but rather by his death from dysentery during the night of October 18, 1216, after which his enemies rapidly began to lose their appetite for the fight. Little at the time would have led anyone to believe that the charter agreed at Runnymede in June of 1215 was anything more than a brave but flawed attempt to restrain an unpopular and overbearing king, which had failed in the most emphatic circumstances imaginable.
Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty by Dan Jones, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group