It is generally accepted that this 13th century document is the cornerstone of the English legal system; after nearly 800 years it is still quoted and was recently referred to by the inventor of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
But for all its indisputable importance and modern day interpretation, it was not in fact intended to be a Legal Instrument; back in the days of the great Crusades, it was meant to be a lesson in humility for the despotic King John who was trying to follow in big brother’s footsteps.
FROM LIONHEART TO COWARDLY LION
Bearing the marque of the heroic and incorruptible St George, the legendary King Richard the Lionheart crusaded across the globe to not only expand Christendom but also grow his own territory. Richard’s campaigns were supported by England’s feudal system and the barons who agreed to supply both men and money for the cause.
However, following Richard’s death in 1199, King John’s attempts to continue the ‘good fight’ failed miserably; he was quite literally, fighting a losing battle.
But he was also losing money and the more he lost, the more he demanded from the barons, dispensing with the formality of an entreaty, he simply increased taxes.
It was around this time that another character emerged that was subsequently enshrined in heroic legend in the form of the Earl of Huntingdon aka Robin Hood, and whilst there is no proof, I wonder if he too may have had a hand in creating The Magna Carta.
13 – UNLUCKY FOR SOME
At the turn of the 13th century, in order to protect England’s foreign interests, barons were always happy to provide both money and men under the ‘feudal system’ on the understanding the king consulted them. This system worked well whilst the military campaigns remained successful; however under King John’s rule, he was not only losing his battles but by 1204, England had lost much of its land in northern France so John unilaterally decided to increase tax without consulting the barons.
John also managed to annoy the Roman Catholic Church and in 1207 the Pope banned all church services in England. Given the importance of the Church to the people of Medieval England, it left the population without a moral compass.
In 1209, John was excommunicated by the Pope and in retaliation John confiscated church property, selling it back to the bishops at a profit!
Faced with no hope of being allowed through the Pearly Gates, John realised the error of his ways and in 1214 submitted to the power of the Church; but this year also saw significant military defeats, so John returned to London demanding yet higher taxes. But the barons rebelled and captured London on 17 May 1215. John finally relented and agreed to parley.
RIGHTS OF THE COMMON MAN
The Magna Carta received the Royal Seal at Runnymede in June 1215.
There were 63 clauses; the first part protected the rights of the Church; the next 15 chapters prevented the king from exploiting loopholes in the feudal system. But it was the final section that detailed the rights of the people under Common Law. This was the first time a king’s decisions were subject to scrutiny.
‘That no free man shall be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions or outlawed or exiled. Nor will we proceed with force against him 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’
FATE WORKS IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS
However, after just three months, sections of the Charter were already being ignored and by November 1215 John had regained some control.
In response the barons offered the crown to Prince Louis of France but in a twist of fate King John contracted dysentery and died on 18 October 1216. The King’s Council quickly put John’s son Henry III on the throne and reissued the Magna Carta.
But the main point is that the Magna Carta was never intended to be a legally binding document; it was meant to rein in the king and stop him from exploiting the feudal system and to make him realise he couldn’t ride rough-shod over his people.
It was the first time the voice of the people made itself heard and was listened to.
All but three of the Charter’s clauses are now obsolete but its evolution and re-interpretation has ensured its survival and maintained its importance in the English legal system.
It is also echoed in the American Bill of Rights and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is unknown how many copies were actually made but there are four known surviving copies, two at the British Library, one in Lincoln Cathedral and one in Salisbury Cathedral.
There is going to be a special exhibition of the four documents at the British Library in 2015, the first time they have been seen together in 800 years.
A final thought – I wonder what the barons and indeed Robin Hood would make of our current system?