In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Magna Carta

Google celebrated with a Doodle dedicated to the Magna Carta. (Edited: Metro/Google)

Google celebrated with a Doodle dedicated to the Magna Carta. (Edited: Metro/Google)

It was the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.

At Runnymede, where King John signed the original accord in 1215, Prime Minister David Cameron said:

Why do people set such store by Magna Carta? Because they look at history. They see how the great charter shaped the world, for the best part of a millennium, helping to promote arguments for justice and for freedom.

It is part of the mythology of Magna Carta that it was the fresh fountain of liberty and justice.

The Magna Carta was a reaffirmation of English liberty, and of the principle that the power of monarchs is limited by laws, and not just by regal whims.

Henry I of England signed the Charter of Liberties, otherwise known as the Coronation Charter, upon his accession in 1100.

Neither the Coronation Charter nor the Magna Carta directly established protections for subjects of the king, but limited the regent’s treatment of his barons.

It was intended as a peace treaty.

That document was papally annulled later that year, as civil war began.

As Claire Breay and Julian Harrison of the British Library elucidate:

In 1215 Magna Carta was a peace treaty between the King and the rebel barons. In that respect it was a failure, but it provided a new framework for the relationship between the King and his subjects. The 1225 version of Magna Carta, freely issued by Henry III (r. 1216-72) in return for a tax granted to him by the whole kingdom, took this idea further and became the definitive version of the text. Three clauses of the 1225 Magna Carta remain on the statute book today.

“To no one deny or delay right or justice”

Whilst the idea of enumerated clauses was transposed onto the 1225 Magna Carta by Sir William Blackstone in 1759, one clause remains famous:

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, except by the lawful judgement 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.

This passage flourished with meaning in later interpretations. (Source: BBC/Getty Images)

This passage flourished with meaning in later interpretations. (Source: BBC/Getty Images)

Note that ‘free men’ only constituted a small proportion of the population in King John’s time: such favours were not extended to the serfs or villeins, who were tried in their own lords’ courts.

When the phrase ‘free men’ gained wider applicability, it was seen, by a 14th century Parliament, to guarantee trial by jury.

Furthermore, “in the 17th century Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) interpreted it as a declaration of individual liberty in his conflict with the early Stuart kings”.

Beacon for Liberty

The Magna Carta has tremendous symbolic resonance, as the beacon for liberty, glimmering in the 1791 American Bill of Rights and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It was a flame rekindled, not lit anew.

It was a reaffirmation, not an nascent idea.

Laws grow through reiteration, reinterpretation and resistance.

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This entry was posted on June 16, 2015 by in National Politics and tagged , .
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