“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?
“Did she die in vain?
“Brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past ten! Is all this to be forgotten?”
Over half a century on from that line in Hancock’s Half Hour and 800 years on from its creation, most of us may not know much than that Magna Carta was not a Hungarian peasant girl.
Nick Spencer writes in Third Way: “The praise with which we shower Magna Carta can get a bit embarrassing.” He goes on: “We expect a magnificent declaration of human dignity and freedom and are surprised to find a range of technical and obscure royal concessions covering everything from tax and inheritance to forestry practice and the location of fish weirs.”
I’ve viewed various versions of the Magna Carta, in Salisbury Cathedral most frequently. I’ve even contemplated buying a large poster version for my wall. I’m not entirely sure why, perhaps I’m just a sucker for religious-historical kitsch. Or maybe it’s for the same reason I want to buy my nieces wall charts of all the kings and queens of England.
If you feel like you should know a little bit more about the great charter – that’s what ‘Magna Carta’ means – here’s your guide to three key aspects according to Nick Spencer, who is almost entirely responsible for my latter day education on the Magna Carta.
- The charter established the centrality of due process. This ensured that the King and the people operated within a legal framework. Clause 39 states: “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 way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
- ‘All free men’ meant a small minority of people in England, it did not include the majority who were bound either to land or a certain lord. However, this extension of rights to all land-owners and tenants was a remarkable step forward. The charter stated: “To all free men of our kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs.” The pledge to all free men recurred throughout the charter.
- The text rested on a security clause that placed the King under baronial scrutiny. Clause 61 states: “We give and grant the barons the following security: The barons shall elect 25 of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter.” Before you wonder what happened to this group of 25 barons, the clause vanished when the charter was reissued in 1225.
Within two months of the granting the charter, King John had appealed to Pope Innocent III, who promptly annulled it. The Church, and this is the central point of a recent Theos report The Church and the Charter, was more constructively involved than the edict of Pope Innocent suggests. Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury and ironically Innocent’s chosen for the role, played a key role ensuring the barons got a fair hearing before the King. After its annulment Langton also refused the Pope’s command to excommunicate the barons who had stood their ground at Runnymede. This refusal led to his exile until King John’s death the following year.
On his return, Langton led the way for the charter’s reissue in 1225, securing an additional clause that called for excommunication of any king or baron who broke its laws.
The Magna Carta was no egalitarian nirvana. But it did influence the development of laws across Europe and prompted thinkers to expound natural law, establishing human equality and calling for that to be translated into human law. The charter agreed on the field at Runnymede was not the first to set out such thinking. Ten years previously a certain Pope Innocent III wrote: “It may be said that kings are to be treated differently from others. We, however, know that it is written in the divine law. ‘You shall judge the great as well as the little and there shall be no difference of persons’.”