Ever paused to wonder what life would be like under a despot? Forget the 21st century wannabes. At least, they try to feign concern. No, imagine yourself in the Dark Ages, a time when you couldn’t hide behind a username and tweet yourself a revolution. You are under a king and a peculiar one at that. The ones before him at least made attempts at respecting feudal law. But not him. Not him! He’s not one to ponder if he’s overstepping his authority, he varies your taxes whenever he fancies, posts in his government go the highest bidder and his courts decide cases based on his wishes rather than the law. In fact, he has no regard for God or man. As chronicled, great was his greed and ambition that when he found out his nephew (who was just a boy) had a legitimate claim on the throne, he had him incarcerated and then ordered his limbs chopped off!!! The boy Arthur I eventually vanished and was never heard from again. To ensure no further rivals, the wicked king had then directed his cruel gaze onto Arthur’s sister Eleanor, Fair Maid of Brittany and had proceeded with the same modus operandi.
Welcome to life in 13th century England under King John Lackland (1166-1216), the youngest of five sons of King Henry II of England. The tragedy was, though he was in no way expected to be the future King of England, what with four older brothers, three of these brothers fell out of favour with their father and one died unexpectedly. So, in 1199 John ascended the throne at the age of 33. His reign was marked by political ineptitude, grievous sexual misconduct (which alienated many of the noble families he was dependent on) and an utter disregard for the Church (he was practically an atheist – political suicide in those days!)
John’s policies eventually brought him into conflict with Pope Innocent III (who had him excommunicated) as well as barons from the north of England. The barons were discontented with John’s financial tactics and his inability to recover England’s lost French territories. Moreover, fed up with his chaotic regime they wanted him to agree on a fixed set of rights for the English aristocracy. Thus the Great Charter (Latin: Magna Carta) was born!!! But now, John had to consent to the articles in the Charter. A Herculean task indeed! He refused them the first two times. The barons brought their armies for the third to see if John could be persuaded to see the light. The provisions of Magna Carta were agreed to on 15th June 1215 at Runnymede meadow alongside the River Thames, and were legalized within the next few days.
Now ‘the Great Charter’ was great for the gentry. The clauses of the agreement meant that the Pope wouldn’t have to worry about royal interference anymore, church rights would be protected, illegal imprisonment would be done away with, there would be speedy access to justice and most importantly the barons would have their say on all important matters related to the kingdom especially on those related to taxation and other like payments to the Crown. However, the Charter hardly spelt out anything on the rights of the layfolk, the ordinary freemen and peasants who made up the majority of the populace.
But how could this happen? How could such an important charter – ‘Magna Carta Libertatum’ (the Great Charter of the Liberties’) exclude so many people who lives could have taken a turn for the better, if they had been brought in? Well, this was partly to be expected. Magna Carta was born out of the BARONS’ need to rein in King John. It was MEANT to benefit them. Now, to ascertain that John would indeed comply with the terms agreed upon, the charter included a security clause that allowed for the formation of a council of twenty-five barons who were empowered to seize John’s assets in case he reneged. Moreover, they could also compel men to swear their allegiance to the council until the King made rightful amends to whatever breaches he had caused. This was too much for John!! To be fair, any self-respecting king would have been hard-pressed to accede to such terms and someone like John would only have been deceiving himself if he thought his pride could have withstood such a whacking. On the other hand, the Barons weren’t exactly saints either. They were brought together by a shared hatred against their king and it was evident by their high-handedness that they never intended to honour the treaty anyway. The inevitable war that followed proved too costly for John. He succumbed to dysentery and was succeeded by his young son Henry III (he was nine when he was enthroned) who, despite defeating the rebels, to his credit agreed to abide by another charter (the Great Charter of 1225, which was much less demanding upon the Crown than the first).
Despite Magna Carta’s obvious limitations, it nevertheless proved to be a decisive step forward in the evolution of a constitutional government in England. The English Parliament, in the 1600’s, found it to be a rallying point in their struggle against the tyrannical Stuart kings. They admired the ingenuity of the charter because underneath its tall impositions lay a rather elegant way of checking the Crown’s power. They cited it as concrete legal support for their argument that Parliament was the supreme authority on all matters related to legislation and taxation and used it to extract guarantees of trial by jury, provisions against illegal imprisonment (Habeas Corpus) and other rights. Outside the political arena, the charter had clauses dealing with the use of forests, treatment of Jewish moneylenders (who were generally favoured by the King) and the proper process of fishing in England’s rivers. Even though the Great Charter failed the layfolk in its time, it was however held up as a beacon by all those who wanted democracies and individual rights in later centuries. At present, four originals of the 1215 charter remain in England. Two are in the British Library in England, one in Salisbury Cathedral and the last in Lincoln Cathedral.
The past week marked the 800th anniversary of the original Great Charter of 1215. Its trail throughout the centuries has left in its wake legacies rich in the ideals of freedom, justice and democracy. That melodious statement “No free man shall be wrongfully imprisoned, exiled, deprived of his property or destroyed in any manner simply because the king wills it” rings throughout this great document. Those countries that followed English law in forming their own governments benefitted much out of it (case in point – India). Our beloved nation, the world’s largest democracy, enshrined these doctrines into the Constitution at its very inception and India still remains as one its greatest guarantors. Amendments 5 and 14 of the US Constitution which uphold the supremacy of the law over heads of state owes a great deal to the events that transpired on that historic day. Even the Arab spring culminated from a desire to see the principles of Magna Carta set in motion in the Middle East. So you see, the charter matters very much even today. It has all the right ingredients to garner public support and is a wieldy tool (more so in this digital age) to keep away the stubby fingers of overzealous governments.
Vishal Joseph Thomas