“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” asked an exasperated Tony Hancock playing the jury foreman in an episode of his Half Hour. Clearly not. Far from dying, Magna Carta has had a life longer, fuller and more influential than the most optimistic medieval baron could have imagined.
Today marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta so quite rightly there is a lot of focus on what this lofty old document means for modern day human rights. You know an event is important when it gets its own Google Doodle. The Magna Carta’s legacy has endured — but it was initially valid only for about 10 weeks. That’s because after receiving King John’s letter, Pope Innocent issued a pronouncement: “I declare the charter to be null and void of all validity forever.”
Magna Carta originated in 1215 as a peace treaty between King John and a group of rebellious barons The original document was written in Latin on parchment made from animal skin The name didn’t emerge until the document’s reissue in 1217. It became known as The Great Charter to differentiate it from the smaller Charter of the Forest issued at the same time.
But why is a charter from 1215, which was declared null and void by the Pope within weeks of being written, which doesn’t mention “trial by jury” or “habeas corpus” (the right not to be held indefinitely without trial), and which forbids any woman from accusing a man of murder or manslaughter, seen as the foundation of our liberties and our law?
In 1215 England’s King John was in trouble. He had spent heavily on a failed attempt to regain his Angevin Empire in France; the French were threatening to invade; rebellious barons, whom he had been fleecing to finance his wars, were marching against him. He had no choice but to sue for peace with the rebels; the peace treaty, sealed at Runnymede on the Thames on June 15th, was called the Magna Carta. Since the barons had the upper hand, its main thrust was to protect their rights against monarchical abuse. It did not, as some suppose, spawn democracy (which only started to emerge even in embryonic form rather later) or trial by jury (which was already in use). But its chapter 39 (29 in subsequent versions) asserted the right to due process of law—“no free man shall be seized or imprisoned…except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land”—for which it has been revered ever since.
Sad irony that Cameron's tories who have fought to relieve citizens of so many of their individual rights is gov't to celebrate #MagnaCarta
— Harry Leslie Smith (@Harryslaststand) June 15, 2015
As a peace treaty, it was a failure: John reneged on it a month later. But the charter survived because the king died the following year and William Marshal, regent to the nine-year-old Henry III, reissued it to persuade the rebel barons to support the young king against the French. It worked: the barons rallied round and the charter was revised and reissued several times. The location of the negotiations at the Saxon meeting place of Runnymede was important. For in the Saxon tradition and Law Rulers were not absolute but had to earn the respect of their subjects and rule “in Council” giving particular weight to the views of the elders. Absolutism with the King being the source of all justice and owning all property came with the Normans under William the Conqueror. But the English kicked back against absolutism at Runnymede and later. The Saxon way continuously reasserted itself in the formation of Parliament, the “Glorious Revolution” and in the foundation stone of democracy, Local Government, where the Saxon tradition of Council and word of “Aldermen” still exists. It is these Saxon traditions that JRR Tolkien, a Professor of Old Saxon, harks back to in the “Lord of the Rings” where the goodness of “The Shire” where decisions are made by consensus is contrasted with the Dark Lord Sauron and the terrible consequences of absolutism.
— The Economist (@TheEconomist) June 15, 2015
At its heart is the idea that the law is not simply the whim of the king, or the government. It is the great egalitarian legacy of Magna Carta, that all are equal under the law, and all can be held to account. It is that idea that gave birth to so many of our rights and freedoms, to parliamentary democracy, fair trial, and a series of controls on the abuse of arbitrary power.
Still, the Magna Carta might have disappeared into the mists of medieval history were it not for two political turning points at which revolutionaries found it convenient to present themselves as traditionalists. The first was the English Civil War, when Sir Edward Coke, former chief justice, dug up the charter and used it in service of his argument that there was precedent for limiting the power of the monarch. It thus formed the basis of the Petition of Right, a proto-constitution which the parliamentarians forced the king to sign. The second turning point at which the Magna Carta resurfaced was the American War of Independence, when rebellious colonists cited the Charter against parliament just as parliament had used it against the king.
— The Independent (@Independent) June 15, 2015
Of the original charter’s 63 chapters only three—one confirming the freedom of the church, one confirming the liberties of the City of London and the crucial chapter 39—remain on Britain’s statute book. But as an emblem of the long struggle of people everywhere against the excesses of an arbitrary ruler, it retains great power.
Today at the site of the Magna Carta’s signing at Runnymede the great and good gathered to commemorate its 800th Anniversary – The Queen, Prince William, Prime Minister David Cameron and the US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who has shown the world how to cut the crap when it comes to FIFA.
How shameful then that David Cameron should demean the occasion by using the anniversary to engage in cheap politicking, penning an article in the Murdoch Rag the Sun to use the Magna Carta to spuriously support his pointless crusade to get Britain to abandon the European Convention on Human Rights as part of his great “European re-negotiation.” Poor Bulli Boy David probably doesn’t understand The European Convention on Human Rights has nothing to do with the European Union, which it predates. It has everything to do with Winston Churchill and his determination that the Nazis perversion of Law and use of the resources of a state (Police, Courts, Prison, Concentration Camps, Euthanasia, Slave Labour, Sterilisation, etc; etc;) to abuse Human Rights would never be repeated.
Perhaps young David Cameron skipped that Civics class to go trashing restaurants and bully the little people or maybe while telling everybody else to remember, his memory is slipping? Human rights are not a gift to be bestowed upon us by monarchs, barons or democratically elected politicians, they are ours to be treasured and protected. It is not up to them to decide who and who is not entitled to human rights – the ‘human’ part of this is universal. That is why they are “inalienable” they belong to US as OUR rights.
If the Prime Minister is sincere about protecting human rights in the UK and is proud of the Magna Carta’s legacy, he should stop attacking the Human Rights Act and think about how he can ensure that we all have equal access to justice. The enduring legacy of Magna Carta is that Human Rights and Freedom under Law belong to us all. In a time of secret courts in Britain and the Guantanamo gulag, the threat to rights from terror laws and state surveillance of our online activities, do we need to reaffirm its basic principles? Should we take things even further, as Tim Berners-Lee has suggested, and create a new Magna Carta for the worldwide web to protect our liberty online?
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