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Under a tent in Runnymede

· Eight hundred years ago the Magna Carta was signed ·

On Monday 15 June, Her Majesty The Queen will be joined by dignitaries from the United Kingdom and around the world at a meadow called Runnymede, not far from Windsor Castle, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of an extraordinary document. That document is Magna Carta, commonly recognised as the foundation text of the Common Law and the root of the United States Constitution. In many ways it is also, still, at the very heart of modern representative democracy. While we may look to ancient Athens for the forms of our democracy, it is in Magna Carta that we must seek its guiding principles: the accountability of government to the governed, and freedom of all men from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

But what is it about this “charter of liberties”, negotiated and agreed by a reluctant King John and a group of rebellious barons, that caught the imagination and gives it its unique significance? Many who read it today are disappointed. It appears at first glance a rather dull document dealing with medieval rights and obligations, drafted in legalistic Latin, defining contemporary customs, seemingly with little relevance to modern life. The majority of its clauses were removed from English law during the reign of Queen Victoria. It makes no mention of ‘democracy’, and it is clearly a document that was of interest principally to the ruling classes of England at the time. Only two months later, it was annulled by Pope Innocent iii in his bull Etsi karissimus of 24 August 1215. And yet Lord Denning, one of the most celebrated English judges of the 20th century, has described Magna Carta as “the greatest constitutional document of all times — the foundation of freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.

To understand it better, we need to consider something of its history. In 1214-15, the barons of England were in rebellion against a King who was systematically and arbitrarily abusing his authority, from seizing private and church property to imprisoning and even murdering opponents without trial. Civil war between King John and his most powerful subjects appeared imminent. Cynically, and in order to place himself under an added degree of papal protection, the King had taken vows as a crusader in March 1215, albeit with little intention of fulfilling them. But the barons had had enough. They were determined to force the King to terms, and it was Archbishop Stephen Langton of Canterbury — intellectual heir of St Thomas Becket, appointed to Canterbury personally by Pope Innocent iii — who played a direct role in bringing the King and barons to what was, in essence, a negotiation of peace.

The final document, sealed in a tent at Runnymede by the King and the most powerful men of the land on 15 June and offered to “all the free men of my realm”, was a restatement of those ancient privileges and freedoms that the King was accused of trying to break. These included: “that the English church shall be free”; that “no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or exiled or in any way destroyed ... except by the lawful judgement of his peers”; subjecting royal taxation to “the common counsel of the realm”; and guaranteeing “the ancient liberties and free customs” of London and other cities. The document was copied and immediately distributed to the country, with Langton and the English bishops playing a leading role in its distribution through the diocesan chanceries (three of the four surviving original texts come from ecclesiastical archives).

It was clearly a humiliation for the King. The medieval chronicler Matthew Paris describes John “gnashing his teeth, scowling with his eyes, and ... began with increased extraordinary gestures to show the grief and rage he felt”. He had no intention of keeping to his word, and moved fast to repudiate his promises as soon as he was able. He sent envoys to the Pope invoking Papal protection as a vassal, claiming that the clauses of Magna Carta had been imposed by force. He sought to seize Rochester Castle, a vital fortress controlled by Archbishop Langton on the route of any invading army. And he made diplomatic overtures to the eldest son of the King of France, Prince Louis, that ultimately led to invasion and civil war. The Pope, informed by the King’s envoys, declared the rebels excommunicated and suspended Langton from office. His Bull Etsi karissimus was published at the end of September. Magna Carta appeared stillborn.

It was King John’s death in October 1216 that transformed the situation and the fate of Magna Carta. The Pope’s principal objections had been to the imposition of Magna Carta upon the King by rebels, not to its content. On his deathbed, John placed his successor, the nine year old Henry iii, under the protection of the Pope. Henry was crowned by the Papal legate, Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, a native of Vercelli, at Gloucester Abbey on 28 October. And two weeks later, at Bristol on 12 November 1216, an amended Magna Carta was reissued as a manifesto of the King’s future good government, authenticated with the seals of its new sponsors, the King’s guardians and chief ministers, William Marshall and Cardinal Bicchieri. No longer an attack on royal privilege, it now had explicit papal approval. The Magna Carta was issued again in 1217 on the defeat of Prince Louis and the remaining rebels, and by Henry iii a fourth time in 1225 in return for a grant of taxation from his subjects. Archbishop Stephen Langton, restored to office, played a vital role in this process, and it was the 1225 version that was to become the standard text thereafter. Magna Carta had been transformed from a failed instrument of peace, in 1215, into a permanent legislative guarantor of liberties by 1225. By 1253 it was being reissued in the English language of ‘the common people’. It was embedded into English canon law, and a definitive text entered Statute law in 1297. It is as close to a written constitution as England has ever had.

When we talk of “the rule of law” today, we are without realising it invoking not only the spirit but also the letter of Magna Carta. Thomas Jefferson and the committee that drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence internationalised the principles of Magna Carta, stressing their application not only to Britain but, in an inalienable way, to all mankind. In her speech to the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948, following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafted by a commission under her chairmanship, Eleanor Roosevelt said: “We stand today on the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere”. Magna Carta still stands for liberty and the freedom of the individual against the overweening power of arbitrary government, something ever more important in this age of globalisation and the almost unlimited potential power of the state. We have come a long way from the muddy field of Runnymede in June 1215 and the coronation of a nine year old boy as King of England just 18 months later. But Eleanor Roosevelt’s words remind us of why, of the many anniversaries we commemorate this year, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is, perhaps, the most worthy of celebration.

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