By Ben Kelly, blogger and editor of The Sceptic Isle.
15 June 2015 marks 800 years since a rather famous charter was agreed by the unpopular King John at Runnymede, under pressure from a group of rebellious barons who had backed his failed war against the French and now sought to constrain him.
The severely weakened king had no choice but to bear witness to the sealing of what many now perceive as one of the world’s most important documents. It has become iconic, but it has its detractors. It is a favourite pastime of dry historians and politically motivated lawyers to pick the myth apart and express their disdain for the reverence shown to the old document.
It is quite true that we tend now to view it through rose tinted glasses after much historical revisionism and the creation of a national myth around the event.
The details of the actual event and the passage of the charter into law are often oversimplified or caricatured. The date which we will this year mark, and the document we celebrate, is revered in part because of the manner in which it has been used by those with a political agenda.
The fact is that the deal made in 1215 rapidly fell apart. England, for the serfs, was oppressive and centuries away from being the beacon of freedom it would become.
Much of the charter is now forgettable and of little interest, having to do with the preoccupations of the powerful in a medieval feudalism; the removal of fish weirs from English rivers, weights and measures, the baron’s grievances about the ownership of land and a few passages regulating debt repayments to Jews, for example.
King John did not keep his commitments and the charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III not long after it had been written. The regency government of Henry III reissued the charter the following year in an unsuccessful bid to gain political support, but it had been stripped of its radical content.
And yet, a precedent had been set. The pessimists do have a point, to be sure, and sometimes it is important to prick the bubble of a myth in order to examine the truths of history. However, gestating in that great charter were the freedoms that would be enjoyed by all on this island, before they spread from these shores and set an example to the world.
In 1217 the document acquired its historic name of Magna Carta when it formed part of the Treaty of Lambeth – the peace treaty that ended the First Barons’ War. The charter was reissued again in 1225 by Henry in exchange for new taxes.
Then, in 1297, his son Edward I was forced by parliament to reconfirm it in exchange for taxes to fight the crusades; it then finally became part of English statutory law.
During the reign of Edward III, the political influence of the Commons increased and waned, back and forth. Magna Carta was frequently cited in the argument for parliamentary oversight of the government. A statute of 1369 declared of Magna Carta: “If any Statute be made to the contrary, that shall be holden for none.”
This was an insistence that the Great Charter had constitutional significance.
From November 1373 until 1376 Parliament did not meet. Eventually the need for funds became desperate and the calling of Parliament a necessity. The members assembled and would become known as “the Good Parliament”. They set about addressing the corruption of the Royal Council. Peter de la Mare, Speaker of the House, openly criticised the corruption of the court and called for greater scrutiny of the monarchy and the royal accounts.
Although the political gains of the Good Parliament were temporary, it was another watershed moment in English political history. The mythical principles of the charter of 1215 loomed large. By the 1400’s Magna Carta had been reconfirmed over forty times.
The sealing of its legacy gathered pace in the 16th century when it became part of historical narrative about the developing liberties of Anglo-Saxon England being crushed by the Norman occupiers. It became part of a political agenda to argue for the supremacy of Parliament over the monarchy.
In the 17th century it was championed by men such as Edward Coke, a major influence in the passage of the Petition of Right, as the foundation of English liberty and the rule of law. It became a political weapon used to argue against absolutism and the divine right of kings as espoused by the Stuart monarchs.
The legendary status of Magna Carta was sealed with the English civil war and the execution of Charles I. Parliament was victorious, but felt threatened by the New Model Army as it advanced on London. Its great general, Sir Thomas Fairfax, was appointed Constable of the Tower of London in a gesture of goodwill. His first act was to demand that the old parchment, the Magna Carta, be brought before him whereupon he proudly exclaimed:
“This is that which we have fought for, and by God’s help we must maintain!”
Those who undermine Magna Carta discount the importance of the principles which were clung to and would eventually win the day. King Richard and King John had squeezed England until the pips squeaked to pay for their wars and extravagance; the barons were courageous to stand up to him. It was seminal moment in human history.
The precedent set and the symbolism of what happened in 1215 cannot be dismissed and, if anything, we British understate its significance. The very act of attempting to constrain the head of state and insisting that they be subject to the law of the land like everybody else was pivotal.
Within the text were echoes of the Charter of Liberties issued in 1100, words upon which true freedom could be built:
“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.”
This clause was not given much prominence in 1215, but future generations used it to declare the rights of freemen to a fair trial by jury, due process, secure private property and individual liberty. It is echoed in the English Bill of Rights (1689), the US Bill of Rights (1791) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
The old parchment we celebrate bequeathed to the world the key principles of freedom: due process of law, justice delayed is justice denied, no taxation without representation and the rule of law; that wonderful notion, still alien to many unfortunate countries, that the powerful cannot be above the law and cannot make up rules at will.
The Great Charter sought to place the law above the government and establish it in a contract. This was the birth of constitutional liberty. It created a council to enforce it that would become the Parliament that still meets to this very day.
The precepts of the Great Charter would lead to representative government, the marvels of British liberty and a political system that would, for several centuries, act as a guarantor of freedom.
The precepts set out in 1215 cleared the way for everything that would follow: equality before the law, free contracts, secure private property, free and open elections, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of conscience. Eventually came freedom of religion, universal suffrage and gender equality. Do not underestimate the power of first principles and precedent.
Those great principles are now the common property and cultural birth rights of all the English speaking peoples. As we celebrate the old parchment, let us not forget that a copy sits in the Australian Parliament and another hangs next to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. It is an international symbol of liberty and justice and a holy document for the Anglosphere.
So, don’t ignore the naysayers, for there is truth in what they say. Nonetheless, do not let them fatally undermine the true significance of Magna Carta. For it should be celebrated, and it is a unifying celebration, whatever your political persuasion, race or religion; we can all be thankful for the triumph of the rule of law and be proud that the concept was born on this island of ours.
No, the real debate isn’t whether we should revere Magna Carta and celebrate the anniversary – of course we should; it’s about the best way to carry its legacy forward.
We can allow ourselves a celebration, and the enjoyment of a national myth, but we shouldn’t let it blind us nor allow ourselves to become complacent.
Those who worship at the altar of the Human Rights Act – and they are out in force recently – seem to bafflingly overlook the fact that since 1998 we have been subjected to an aggressive and sustained assault on freedom. Ancient liberties have been torn to shreds, the principles they were built upon betrayed and the constitution vandalised.
Let us not fall into the same trap by celebrating the 800 year anniversary using history as a comfort blanket, and failing to face up to the harsh realities before us.
The liberties of Britain have been severely eroded over the last century. The world wars saw the state expand its powers and never revoke them. It has increased its meddling instincts exponentially and shows no sign of reining itself in.
The fight against the machinations, corruption and self-serving nature of the rich and the powerful elites continues. We shouldn’t be fooled by politicians who celebrate Magna Carta while supporting the injustices we suffer today, 800 years later. Illiberal legislation has passed through Parliament at an alarming in recent decades.
From “extremism orders” to the European Arrest Warrant, and the sad fact that at fourteen days Britain has the longest period of pre-charge detention of all western liberal democracies; the spirit of the Great Charter is in need of a serious revival.
It won’t do to pay our respects to Magna Carta without calling shame on secret courts, the undermining of trial by jury and habeas corpus, curbs on freedom of expression, religion and assembly and the subjugation of Parliament in the modern day.
The great struggle now continues in railing against the dissolution of national democracy by the European Union and unaccountable governance by quangos at home and commissioners, bureaucrats and officials in Brussels.
Thank the barons for setting the precedent, but don’t fail to notice the centralisation of power in number 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister wields more absolute power than King John ever did.
Powerful and increasingly remote elites are in desperate need of reeling in as they steadily gain ever more power and seek to undermine liberty and democracy.
It is 800 years on 15 June 2015. Mark the day and raise a glass to a great day in history. But tomorrow, pay your respects in the best way possible; with seditious commotion.
Originally published on The Sceptic Isle.