Monday, June 15, 2015

The Great Charter

Nobody tell Jason Rapert, but the birthday of the actual foundation of American jurisprudence is today.

Magna Carta, the Great Charter, was signed by King John on this day 800 years ago.

I'm reminded of a great joke I heard a number of years ago.  An American, eager to see the sights of London but not quite understanding the history, is on a tour of the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library.  Upon entering the Magna Carta room, where one of the four extant copies of the original is on display, a young boy asks the guide, "When was the Magna Carta signed?"  The guide replies, "1215."  The American looks at his watch, sees that it's 12:30, and says, "Oh, damn, we've just missed it."

In the 13th century, feudal England was engulfed in a low-grade civil war.  John, the unpopular king, was struggling to hold onto power.  A decade before, he had lost his ancestral lands in France, and he had spent most of his time and money until 1214 on war in France to try to regain them.  The defeat of John's allies at the Battle of Bouvines was disastrous; forced to withdraw from France and pay reparations to King Philip II of France, John returned to England to find his vassals restless and mounting an armed resistance to his further rule.

At this time, there were conflicting views about the proper conduct of government.  Some believed in the divine right of kings to rule as they pleased, by vis et voluntas, or "force and will."  Others recognized the divine right of kings but contended that kings were restrained by custom and tradition.  John's recorded predecessors tended to fall into the second camp, valuing consistency and tradition over unquestioned authority.  John differed, however, perhaps being motivated by external considerations.  He imposed high taxes at will and used force where necessary to achieve his goals.

The barons--landed nobles who owed allegiance to the king but who controlled their own areas--became fed up with John's misrule, renounced their allegiance to the king, and began marching on London.  Seeking to avoid all-out war, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury worked to coalesce the barons' complaints for presentation to the king and brought the two sides together for peace talks in June 1215.  For ten days, Langton mediated the dispute at Runnymede, a meadow on the side of the Thames near Windsor Castle.  On June 10, the barons presented a list of demands; under considerable pressure, John acceded to most of them and on June 15--figuratively and perhaps even literally at the point of a sword, the king signed Magna Carta.  Four days later, the barons re-pledged their fealty to the king, and war was averted.

The document itself is not apparently sweeping in its scope; it is confined to the everyday pragmatic concerns of the barons, as necessary to make peace.  And it is remarkable for its lack of longevity; three months later, with the backing of the Pope, John renounced the document, and the barons repudiated it.  The simmering civil war heated up.  In October, John died, leaving his nine-year-old son, Henry III, as the titular king as England fell to rule by regents.

But in fits and starts, the principles set forth in the original document, with some modifications, were re-instituted in subsequent charters in 1216, 1217, and 1225.  Those principles, including protection of the Church, the right to habeas corpus, limitations on taxation, the right to speedy justice, and the necessity of the consent of the governed, have persisted through the history of Anglo-American jurisprudence, and they are the embedded foundation of justice in our society and in all free societies in the world today.

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