The Magna Carta was signed by the wicked King John on June 15th, 1215, and it is having its 800th birthday this year. Why is that important? Because the Magna Carta is kind of the same as our Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, establishing the rights of the people in England, right? Aside from using the word “right” too often, that sentence has a serious problem. The Magna Carta Libertatum, or Great Charter of the Liberties, said little regarding the rights of all of the people. Only in sections 15, 20, 27 and 39 are “freemen” directly named (more here). Serfs, of course, are not. Then again, neither are black slaves in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, except for how many representatives slave states may send to Congress. Neither serfs nor slaves had rights in any of these documents. What was addressed in the Magna Carta? A group of powerful barons (the 1% of their day) had a number of beefs with King John and were in revolt. This was, in effect, a peace treaty offered to John with a threat dangling overhead like the sword of Damocles. A number of the sections in the Magna Carta had to do with inheritance, keeping the king from plundering estates of dead nobles. Others dealt with legal rights and the church’s standing. However, some of the more interesting sections deal with removing relatives of Gerard de Athyes from positions of authority and freeing the son of Llewellyn and all the Welsh hostages. Ever heard of Gerard de Athyes? Obviously, it was meant to address immediate complaints as well as general principles. Yet it is considered a milestone of contractual government. Why?
At the time the barons met with King John (yes, the bad guy who didn’t get along well with Robin Hood) on the Runnymede meadow, the concept of “divine right” was strongly ingrained in kings and, they hoped, the people. After Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo II, the king was seen as anointed by God. At least by the kings. As such, to revolt against him was to revolt against God. Not a good idea. Yet revolts happened. Either there were those who did not recognize a king’s divine right or they were willing to risk the wrath of God for gain on Earth. If the papacy also had an issue with a king, divine right became a non-issue. Such was the case with poor King John. In fact, the highest ecclesiastical authority in England, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, is said to have written the original Magna Carta. However, things soon went south for the barons. After a dispute with Pope Innocent III a couple of years before, John had surrendered England to the papacy as a feudal holding. In other words, the Pope was John’s liege lord. Wily John contacted Pope Innocent III about this charter and the Pope, seeing it as an infringement on his authority, declared it “null and void of all validity for ever.”
Yet, we have the Magna Carta around to this day. During a war with King John against his barons in which they offered the throne to French Prince Louis, John died of dysentery, or severe diarrhea. You might say he had the crap kicked out of him. His son, Henry III, agreed to the basic terms of the Magna Carta. Although it went through a few other revisions in the next few years, it survived to this day. Three sections still ring true: the ban on cruel and unusual punishments, trial by a jury of one’s peers and the idea that justice should not be sold or unnecessarily delayed. Why is that so important?
The key issue here is the authority of a government. Does God (or Allah) appoint a ruler who can do what he wants with impunity? Or does a governing person or body rule with the consent of those governed? The Magna Carta, in effect, says, “There is a contract between the ruler and those who are ruled. Unless the conditions agreed upon by those being ruled are followed, that contract is null and void.” It was an agreement between those ruled and those who rule. It was, in a very real sense, the precursor of John Locke’s Social Contract, a theory that was a key part of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States of America.
On the 800th anniversary of the first signing of the Magna Carta, let us remember the main points: the ultimate authority is with those governed, we allow others to run the government and can rescind that power at any time, and no man is above the will of the people or has authority to act with impunity.