Miriam Webster defines the Magna Carta as “a charter of liberties to which the English barons forced King John to give his assent in June 1215 at Runnymede”.
June 15, in fact, 800 years ago today. Lord Denning describes it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.
It remains “a foundation of English national identity” and iconically perhaps means more than it said. Denning’s statement is a typical over-egging of what the charter originally covered in referring to “freedom of the individual”. The baron’s were primarily concerned about themselves, but on the radio I heard that it applied originally to “Freemen of our Realm”, not women and not peasants – perhaps 10% of the population.
Only three clauses remain on statute in England and Wales:
- I. FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever.
- IX. THE City of London shall have all the old Liberties and Customs which it hath been used to have. Moreover We will and grant, that all other Cities, Boroughs, Towns, and the Barons of the Five Ports, as with all other Ports, shall have all their Liberties and free Customs.
- XXIX. NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.
I gather that is the original text, translated from the Latin. This is a modern rendering of the third:
- “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. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
In the broad the Magna Carta limited the divine right of kings to act in an arbitrary and “unjust” way. Linda Mottram spells out that it still matters.
Does the notion that a minister of the crown can take away a citizen’s status as a citizen infringe the Magna Carta? I think not (see Peter Singer’s conclusion below).
Peter Singer puts the background well:
- John’s efforts to raise money to regain lost lands in France exceeded the usual taxes and levies that the nobles had accepted from his predecessors. The king seized the estates, and sometimes the person, of wealthy lords or merchants and demanded hefty payments for their release.
If his years of amassing cash had led to victory, John might have got away with his arbitrary methods; but when he was defeated in France, a group of barons rose up against him and captured London. As part of a peace deal brokered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the king accepted the baron’s demands, put to him in a document called Magna Carta, or “the Great Charter.”
- First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. Neither side stood behind their commitments, and the charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons’ War.
King John died of dysentery in 2016, bringing the 9-year old Henry III to the throne. The charter of rights was stripped down somewhat and re-instated by his regency, and was for the first time called the Magna Carta to distinguish it from the Charter of the Forest which was issued at the same time. The barons backing Henry needed support against rivals to the throne, and Magna Carta was part of the deal.
There were various iterations of the document in subsequent times, most notably the 1297 version.
Singer points out that the Magna Carta was in fact anything but democratic. But:
- Because Magna Carta attempted to set limits to political power without grounding these limits in the sovereignty of the people, it demonstrated a problem with which philosophers have grappled for even longer than 800 years. From where do the principles that constrain rulers come, if from neither the rulers nor their subjects?
He then introduces the concept of natural law, effectively a concept of justice that sits outside the legal system. Finally he claims:
- There is nothing in Magna Carta that prevents the enactment and enforcement of unjust laws; but it does elevate the law above the ruler’s will.
It seems to me that in a democracy nothing protects the individual from unjust laws enacted by our legislators, except the constitution and the High Court. The Court’s hand would be significantly strengthened with a charter of human rights.