Magna Carta, the charter agreed to by King John as a concession to some rebel barons, is 800 years old today. John put his seal on the document on June 15, 1215. As a practical matter, the document seems to have been mostly ignored by John and his successors. And, in any event, it primarily protected only the rich and powerful.
Despite the somewhat unimpressive practical reality of the charter, the mythology that grew up around it has been quite influential. Based on a badly flawed view of history, English jurists came to view the document as codifying to some extent the freedoms of Englishmen prior to the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. The belief in these freedoms as an ancient birthright – even if their predecessors did not, in fact, enjoy their protections – contributed to a cultural narrative where those freedoms became a reality. Magna Carta also served as a tangible bulwark against claims by the Stuart Kings that their rights were divine and absolute, perhaps partially explaining why they never enjoyed the level of power amassed elsewhere during that era (Louis XIV comes to mind).
The political myth of Magna Carta and its protection of ancient personal liberties persisted after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until well into the 19th century. It influenced the early American colonists in the Thirteen Colonies and the formation of the American Constitution in 1789, which became the supreme law of the land in the new republic of the United States. Research by Victorian historians showed that the original 1215 charter had concerned the medieval relationship between the monarch and the barons, rather than the rights of ordinary people, but the charter remained a powerful, iconic document, even after almost all of its content was repealed from the statute books in the 19th and 20th centuries. Magna Carta still forms an important symbol of liberty today, often cited by politicians and campaigners, and is held in great respect by the British and American legal communities, Lord Denning describing it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”
The document contained a great deal of discussion about various mechanisms the Crown used to extract money from the nobility, but in modern times, its most important contributions to our legal system surround the concepts of the Church’s independence from the State and the general notion that people are entitled to due process of law. Not too shabby!
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