When I saw a copy of Magna Carta many years ago in London, I stood there in awe, staring at its tiny spiky Latin words, written with a quill pen nearly eight centuries ago on vellum (sheep-skin) sheets.
After my awe subsided, I realized I knew very little about Magna Carta. I was awed mainly because it had been mentioned so often in school, because it was so famous, because it’s considered a kind of distant forerunner to our U.S. Constitution.
All I knew about it, though, is that it was some kind of agreement forced upon an English king by a bunch of upstart rebels in his kingdom.
I saw that document 35 years ago. This week, as of Monday, June 15, Magna Carta, is 800 years old.
Visiting museums is so rewarding because some of the artifacts you see, right there before your very eyes, pique your curiosity so the next time you hear about that artifact or anything related to it, you’ll tend to take notice and absorb the information. After seeing Magna Carta in its glass museum case, I visited a London library to read about the famed document. And I’ve been reading about it ever since.
Magna Carta, which is Latin for “Great Charter,” was an agreement between King John and a few dozen rebellious barons who had gathered at Runnymede Meadow just west of London. Barons, who were powerful landholders and sometimes warriors, pledged fealty to the king and his kingdom. Under the rules of medieval feudalism, they were required to serve in the military, although they could pay hefty sums to the king to avoid service. Under King John’s reign, England had several territories in northern France that had to be maintained through frequent use of military might. That cost money and lots of it. The king began to tax the barons, and the barons had to squeeze that money out of the crops and other goods provided by the sweaty toil of serfs who worked the barons’ lands. The Royal John had become a royal pain about demanding money, even confiscating lands from some barons who wouldn’t cough up the cash.
Finally, the barons had it up to here with the king’s bullying ways. Angered by taxes and by other mounting grievances, many of the barons organized and began a rebellion that led to King John’s sour acquiescence to signing the Magna Carta. The document was a kind of peace agreement written by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
More or less, Magna Carta states the king is not above the law. The document covers issues regarding the Catholic Church and its place in society, a limit to taxation, the wrongs of illegal imprisonment, the need for access to swift and fair justice, and a recognition that all people (king included) are subject to laws and limitations.
Make no mistake: Magna Carta was no trumpeted declaration that “all men are created equal.” Far from it. It was mainly written to protect barons, not the “common” people. And yet, in its bold assertions, it provided a framework upon which hung countless documents through the centuries aimed at extending human rights and limiting the powers of kings and governments.
A council of 25 barons was supposed to implement Magna Carta’s clauses, but within three months the agreement unraveled, and the barons and the king’s men were at each others’ throats again in a full-scale rebellion. Within a year, the king died of an illness, giving way to Henry III.
In the centuries that followed, Magna Carta was ignored, scoffed at, revised, revived, revisited, rearranged, misinterpreted and distorted to the point where it became as mythic as King Arthur or Robin Hood. But what’s important to know is that even as an icon and myth it has had a weirdly effective staying power as a landmark foundation for efforts to codify limitations of power and the rule of law for one and all. Even though 95 percent of it is now outdated and irrelevant, there are still some stunners among its clauses. Here is one clause, for example, that must have rung like a liberty bell in the minds of America’s Founding Fathers:
“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 judgment 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.”
Similar words and meanings – and even the rhythmic cadences of that clause – could be heard again 574 years later when Jefferson and others wrote a Magna Carta, a Great Charter, of their own – our U.S Constitution.
And thus, in its 800th birthday, the Magna Carta is truly something to celebrate.