15th June 1215 - On the banks of the River Thames at Runnymede, near Egham, a memorial stands in a field. It was given by the American Bar Association and erected in 1957. It represents something very special to the American people and is taught about in US schools with reverence. The American Constitution can be traced back to it. The monument is a memorial to the signing of a document by a disgruntled King 800 years ago in 1215. It is known as Magna Carta – the Great Charter.
King John had come to the throne 16 years earlier in 1199 after the death in France of his brother Richard I, the Lionheart. Richard had been no fan of England, or being a King, if the truth were told. He once claimed he would sell London if he could find someone willing to pay enough money for it. Of his ten-year reign Richard spent less than a year in England. Most of it was spent abroad fighting – in France or on the Third Crusade – as well as being kept prisoner on his return from the Holy Land. A ransom of 150,000 marks was demanded by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI. This equated to 65,000 pounds of silver and over two times the annual income of the King. The country was taxed heavily to get him released, which he was on 4th February 1194 after fourteen months in captivity.
Richard’s desire and lust for fighting, the crusade, the ransom and the need to maintain his lands in France, acquired under his father Henry II, meant that the country had been bled dry. When he was killed by a crossbow bolt whilst sieging the castle at Chalus, John took over as King and inherited a treasury as empty as the one taken over by David Cameron’s coalition in 2010.
John set about raising tax, touring the country and trying to beat off the advances of the powerful Philip II of France who was trying to capture English land in France. Whilst he probably did his best, it was not good enough and he made some dreadful errors. He lost Normandy in 1204 – one of the jewels in the English crown in France. He also lost an argument with the Pope, Innocent III, over who should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. John wanted one of his own supporters, John de Gray, but the Pope appointed a man called Stephen Langton. Furious, John refused him entry into England. Eventually John was excommunicated by the Pope at which point he started stealing church land to obtain money. The Pope eventually imposed an Interdict on England whereby the Church went on strike – meaning no baptisms, weddings or funerals could take place and no confessions could be heard. Eventually in 1213 John surrendered to the Pope and agreed to pay the annual sum of £666 as a feudal service charge.
In 1214 John raised an army to challenge the French but was defeated at the battle of Bouvines. John signed a peace treaty and handed back Anjou to Philip as well. This was one of the final straws. The King had been treating the barons with contempt. He had been taking the sons of some of them prisoner to ensure they remained loyal. He fined people exorbitant amounts for small crimes. He delayed and denied justice to others. He was, to put it simply, riding roughshod over the laws of the country.
The King was already in dispute with the barons and this made matters worse. They urged that the King should confirm the coronation charter issued by his ancestor Henry I in 1100. In early 1215 the King refused. The barons renounced their oath of loyalty to the King and, led by Robert Fitz Walter, captured London. The King was now forced to negotiate. The barons drew up a list, the Articles of the Barons. Discussions continued with barons and the Church and John granted the Charter of Liberties with his great seal on June 15th. It was not signed as some today suggest. On June 19th the barons made their allegiances again with the King.
Copies of this document were sent around the country. Recent research now suggests that these were written by churchmen and sent to cathedrals and other abbeys. Four copies still survive. One resides at Salisbury Cathedral, one is in Lincoln and two copies are at the British library.
The peace did not last. John complained to his “Overlord”, the Pope saying that the document was illegal and Innocent declared it as such. The barons refused to leave London until all aspects were implemented. In September civil war broke out. The King raised an army of mercenaries and the barons invited the French heir, Prince Louis, to invade – which he did in 1216. War was only stopped as a result of the King eating a surfeit of lampreys, cider and peaches that caused him to have dysentery. He died on 18th October 1216.
His son, Henry III, succeeded him as King. As he was only 9 years old when he inherited the throne the country was ruled by a council of 13 and the boy himself placed under the guardianship of the powerful baron William Marshall. In 1225 Henry reissued Magna Carta to regain the support of the barons. Edward I in 1297 backed this up.
So what were the key clauses – of which there were 63? Only 3 of these remain part of English law. One of these defends the rights and freedoms of the English Church, another the rights and freedoms of London and other towns but the third is perhaps the most crucial. It states that: ”No freeman shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed, 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 will we deny or delay right or justice.”
This gave freemen the right to justice and a fair trial. At the time freemen accounted for less than 10% of the population, as most peasants were villeins or serfs – who were tied to the land by feudal rights and were not free. However, through the ages this has been used to guarantee justice and fairness against tyrannical regimes. In the 14th Century Parliament saw it as ensuring trial by jury. Parliament invoked its spirit in the 1640s during the Civil War against Charles I; the American Bill of Rights of 1791 has it at its core, as does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
At the time it could never have been foreseen how important this document would become. Many of the clauses deal with specific grievances held by the barons. This was not a document for the common man – it was for the top echelons of society. It re-affirmed their rights; it dealt with taxes and how they could be levied, weights and measures and the removal of fish weirs in the Thames for example.
Magna Carta was however the first time a King’s power had been limited in such a way – and written down in black and white. It protected the rights of the people and subjected the King to the law rather than him being above it. Its power today is largely symbolic in that it demands freedoms and liberties from oppression. Very English.
However American colonists when fighting the English regularly used these cornerstones. Thus when the American Constitution was created in 1787 and the Bill of Rights in 1789 it was hardly surprising that the ideas of Magna Carta found their way into its soul. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, could not give the date of the signing of Magna Carta when asked on US television. Americans were appalled – as were British History teachers! Its appeal and symbolism has become very important in an age when governments sometimes try to limit freedoms for whatever reason. In fact the further we get from it’s signing, the more important its words and ideas seem to be.