Today marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Its royal ratification, on this day in the year 1215, is one of the turning points of Western Civilization — and its 63 clauses and 4,000 words form the cornerstone of our modern understanding of civil liberties and limited government. It is arguably history’s most important document.
For the first time, the concepts of a fair trial, swift justice, due process, habeas corpus, eminent domain, protection of religious rights, limits on taxation, separation of powers, and the subordination of government officials (including the king) to the Rule of Law were all codified in a formal way. Magna Carta’s basic tenets would foreshadow and inform other important documents that would come to extend and enshrine these rights and liberties, including the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has been referenced by influential figures down through the ages, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Skip Stam, and Jay Z.
The signing of Magna Carta Libertatum (Latin for “Great Charter of the Liberties”) was a last-ditch effort by King John of England (great-great-grandson of William the Conqueror, youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and 24th great-grandfather to Prince George and Princess Charlotte) to avoid the likely prospects of civil war.
King Joffrey had nothing on King John
John was perhaps the most despicable king to ever sit on the English throne — so bad, in fact, that there have been no other kings who have taken the name. You might remember that he is the villain in the The Tales of Robin Hood.
According to The Daily Telegraph of London,
“John’s offences are almost too numerous to list. In the first place, he was treacherous: when his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, was away on crusade, John attempted to seize the throne by plotting with the king of France, Philip Augustus, prompting contemporaries to damn him as “a mad-headed youth” and “nature’s enemy”. He was also lecherous: several nobles are reported to have taken up arms against him because he had forced himself on their wives and daughters.
“Most of all, John was shockingly cruel. In a chivalrous age, when aristocrats spared their enemies, capturing them rather than killing them, John preferred to do away with people by grisly means. On one occasion, for example, he ordered 22 captive knights to be taken to Corfe Castle in Dorset and starved to death. Another time he starved to death the wife and son of his former friend, William de Briouze. In 1203 he arranged the murder of his own nephew and rival for power, Arthur of Brittany.”
Faced with a long string of military defeats, the loss of most of his territories (including his mother’s ancestral lands in France), mounting debt, and even excommunication by the Pope, the incompetent king was finally backed into a corner by three dozen or so noble families who were angered that the evil king kept trying to squeeze them for more and more taxes — as their rights were being eroded and their property seized. They finally had had enough.
What they demanded had never been demanded before. It was a radical idea at the time: forbidding a king to exercise any claim to an absolute, “divine right” over his subjects. And not only that, they’d get him to give it all up voluntarily — by making him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Wanting to keep his crown (and his head), John met the noblemen on a misty Monday afternoon at the neutral ground of Runnymede, a few miles south of Windsor Castle and about 20 miles west of London. It was here that the king begrudgingly affixed his royal seal; the rebellion was averted (at least temporarily), constitutional government was born, and the world was changed forever.
The scene is only one of eight (in all of human history) which are depicted in bas relief on the 17 foot high, 13-ton bronze doors of the United States Supreme Court.
“The relevance of the Magna Carta in the 21st century is that it is the foundation of liberty,” said Robert Worcester, chairman of the Magna Carta 800th Committee. Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everyone, including the king, should be subject to the law.
In a statement commemorating this anniversary, North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin observed, “This day of celebration is a time for all citizens to pause and reflect on how Magna Carta established a precedent in favor of the rule of law. Every citizen is a stakeholder in our justice system, and we should take pride in continuing Magna Carta’s legacy today.”
The document, written in Latin, addressed many practical matters of the day (the right of people to catch fish in the sea and to dig for bait on the shore was first enumerated in the Magna Carta) and it contained specific grievances relevant to the feudal system under which they lived. However, there are two key principles expressed in Magna Carta, originally numbered 39 & 40, that remain relevant and familiar to this day:
“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
“To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”
International commemorative events and celebrations are planned across the United States, the United Kingdom, and countries around the world. Queen Elizabeth II, Patron of the Magna Carta Trust, returned to Runnymede this afternoon to mark the occasion.
“The events of 800 years ago marked the commencement of a major undertaking in human history,” Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts, Jr. said in a recent address. The renowned English judge Lord Denning called Magna Carta “the greatest constitutional document of all times — the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”
King John, by the way, met a less-than-noble fate. A year after he signed the Magna Carta, the 49-year old tyrant contracted a bad case of dysentery. He died that October, having lost his lands, his claim to Divine Right, and — in the end — control of his bowels.