Friday, 15 June 2012

797 years ago today.......

The 15th of June is a big day in history, the United States Constitution was ratified, the Rosenbergs were executed, and Jaws was first released. Okay the last isn't important in the great scheme of things, but for a certain generation it is, because it's an iconic film of its time.

But for the British, or to be more accurate the English it is probably one of the top ten dates in history, and ranks alongside The Battle of Hastings, Agincourt and Bosworth. However, unlike these three examples, it isn't a battle we celebrate, but the signing of a piece of parchment.

On this day in 1215, King John met with a number of barons, and was forced to sign the Magna Carta (or great charter), a document that is one of the most famous in English history. It is important not only as a historical event, but because it compelled the King to concede that his power was not arbitrary, though James I and his son Charles I were believers in the 'divine right of Kings.'

As a document seeking to restrict a monarch's powers, the charter was not unique as Henry I had agreed the Charter of Liberties in 1100 which limited his powers in certain areas. But the Magna Carta is one of the most recognisable names in our island's history.

If you take the time to trawl through it, you'll recognise many things that we take for granted today, but it is also very much a document of its time, as it deals principally with issues relating to the barons, and has political interests such as in clause 50 (clauses were created at a later date):

We will remove completely from their offices the kinsmen of Gerard de Athée, and in future they shall hold no offices in England. The people in question are Engelard de Cigogné', Peter, Guy, and Andrew de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné, Geoffrey de Martigny and his brothers, Philip Marc and his brothers, with Geoffrey his nephew, and all their followers. 

de Athée being a mercenary who had served John in France, and had cost a thousand marks to free after he had been captured. He had then been rewarded with grants of estates to family members, and many influential and financially beneficial offices.

There are also many clauses relating to marriage and property rights, so it could easily be thought the barons are only concerned about their own. But clauses such as 38 which states, " In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it," indicate that an attempt, within the thinking of the time, was made to be inclusive.

Measures were to be standardised for ale, wine and corn, and there were a fair number of clauses to protect free men (a man not tied to a lord or manor) from arbitrary rule. These were all very important and sought to bring order in the life of the kingdom. In fact there also clauses which protected women's rights to property and dowries (if very restricted but then this was the 13th century) but 54 is most indicative of women's place in medieval society, " No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband."

However, certain elements have become especially famous clause 40 stating that, "To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice." Number 39 is perhaps the most recognisable to modern sensibilities:

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 judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. 

Indeed it could be argued that our modern governments might do well to revisit some of these clauses, as in the 'interests of security' authoritarianism is in danger of becoming the mantra.

In effect in can be argued that the Magna Carta is the nearest to a written constitution that this nation of ours has ever got. The protection of property and the protection of freedoms, in the context of the time, was a very radical action, even if its primary purpose was to protect barons from the arbitrary actions of a distrusted and despised King.

The principal clause which deals with this issue is 61, which establishes a committee of 25 barons which could meet at any time in order to over rule King John if he broke the charter, and even seize castles and possessions. It could be argued that the barons were seeking to overthrow the monarch, and although this is possible, the idea of any other system other than monarchy was not on the table. John's son Henry would have been the heir, and as he was only eight in 1215, they would have had the opportunity to mould him to their way of thinking.

But John did not do much to try and dispel this reputation as a despot, as once the barons had left London he repudiated and the pope Innocent III (John had previously been excommunicated by a pope but that's another story) annulled it declaring it a, " "shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the King by violence and fear."

Almost inevitably war followed as the First Barons' War  followed, which ended in 1217, whereas John had actually died the previous year (dysentery being the most commonly accepted cause). John's son Henry III succeeded him, and he had his own problems with barons in future years.

Magna Carta is considered one of the foundations of English and British constitutional law, and was a real break from the past in many ways. A document protecting certain freedoms and rights, although not unknown, was unusual before the modern period. But Henry I's has established where the monarch could encroach on the rights of nobles, whereas Magna Carta had dealt with the relationships of subjects with each other, and provided legal protections.

I think it is one of the great documents of British history, and that it rightly takes its place amongst those much revered. Reading through it we can see the roots of many of the rights and privileges we enjoy today, and in often take for granted, forgetting just how hard they had to be fought for, and the many that died doing so.

But it was also a document of its time as the barons sought to protect themselves from the King's arbitrary wielding of power, although there are those that argue John has had an unreasonably bad press. But as a young man he rebelled against his father Henry II, and although put in a rather invidious position by his brother's kidnap, his myriad personality faults, and his lack of social skills added up to an unhappy period for the English during his reign.

This was only a short blog, and not a history lesson, so for those interested in learning more In Our Time  had a very interesting debate on the Magna Carta, and there are a number of revisionist articles standing up for John, most notably Graham Seel's in February's History Today.

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