Imagine this scene:
It’s mid-June, 804 years ago, and two groups of nobles, one siding with King John, the others in rebellion against him, have gathered in the fields of Runnymede to negotiate a peace. With the exception of Cardinal-Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and other ecclesiastics, these men are neither intellectuals nor idealists. The rebels are a rough-and-tumble lot, powerful, land-rich men toughened in battle, barons who have assembled to demand that John honor what they regard as their traditional rights as free men. Likewise, King John and his retinue have seen their share of warfare and are as calculating and hard-nosed as their opponents.
After some days, and with the negotiations helped along by the capable archbishop, who sides with the rebels, King John affixes the Royal Seal to the document now known as the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter.
June 15, 1215, is a turning point in the history of liberty.
Though much of the Magna Carta contains specific baronial demands regarding taxation, the use of England’s forests, means of inheritance, and military service, this piece of parchment also advocates for certain rights: the right of the Church to be free from the state, the right to a trial by jury, the right to receive swift justice, and the rights of the city of London. It places the king under the law and gave barons the recourse to rebellion if he breaks or ignores the Charter’s provisions.
Within three months, King John and the rebel barons are at war again. Within 18 months, John is dead of dysentery.
And here is where the story becomes even more interesting.
John’s son, Henry III, is nine years old when his father dies. As a minor, Henry is advised and protected by the King’s Council, a group of talented men like the famous warrior and Earl of Pembroke William Marshal, Bishop Peter des Roches, and the wily Chief Justiciar of England, Hubert de Burgh. Eventually, these men force the rebel forces into submission, giving Henry the throne and a reign of 56 years. It is during Henry’s long reign that the English parliament begins to emerge, in part because of the historic event at Runnymede and in part because of the work done by the King’s Council when Henry was still in his minority. The growth of Parliament and the continued codification of English common law, of which the Magna Carta is the cornerstone, eventually give rise to democracy as we know it today.
The Influence of the Magna Carta
To understand the enormous influence of the Magna Carta on all English-speaking countries, let’s take as an example Article 39: “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or exiled, or in way ruined, nor will we [i.e. the king] go against him or send forcibly against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
Though “free men” were a minority in England in 1215, this barb of rights and law stuck, embedding itself in England’s unwritten constitution and in the hearts of liberty-loving Englishmen. Henry twice revised and reissued the Magna Carta, and his son, Edward I, had the Charter added verbatim to the Statute Rolls and ordered all to adhere to the document. Subsequent monarchs renewed the document, thereby adding to its power and prestige.
All right, all right, some of you may be thinking. You’re talking about a centuries-old piece of parchment sealed by an English king. What’s it have to do with us?
Given our current age in which American history and the Constitution are under attack, and given the autocratic means by which some politicians and their supporters wish to govern us, this is the ideal time for a look at the Magna Carta.
First, the Great Charter sets limits on the power of government. It’s true that its proponents were powerful barons seeking to maintain their position and wealth vis-à-vis the king, but their avarice led to an expansion of human rights and to limits on tyranny. The Charter reminds us that the English, and later the Americans, have fought for centuries on battlefields and in courtrooms for the principles of freedom.
Moreover, the Magna Carta inspired many of our Founding Fathers. Arguments Thomas Jefferson makes in the Declaration of Independence—tyranny, unjust taxation, unfair trials—were the same as those made 500 years earlier. “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;” “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it:” these and other passages have their roots in the fields of Runnymede.
We also want to remember that Great Britain sired the United States. Until the Revolutionary War, and even for some months afterward, the Americans protesting against King George III and Parliament considered themselves Englishmen who were denied the rights accorded to that position. And while it’s true that the designers of the Constitution studied the political histories and philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome to seek out the best forms of government and avoid the worst, it’s also true that English law and political thought were embedded in the Founders’ hearts.
The adage “An Englishman’s home is his castle” once meant that the power of the state, except in cases of crime, ended at a family’s front door. It was a wall against the intrusions of the state. In the last hundred years, Big Brother governments around the world have torn down that wall. In some countries, that wall is much eroded. Seeking security, many democratic peoples grant increased powers to their governments, blind to the loss of freedom in that bargain.
The rebel barons at Runnymede called for a restoration of their rights.
The American rebels in Philadelphia declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Heed and practice these principles, and individuals and families thrive. Heed them not, practice them not, and the rights and liberties of all are diminished.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.