The Great Charter

23 Sep 2015
The Great Charter

Imagine you live in a society in which religious freedom and due process of law are absent. You are subject to forced service, arbitrary levies and fines. Dispossession and seizure of your property is common, severe limitations on movement and economic activity are routine, and there are no standard measures or inheritance procedures. These conditions apply to you as a member of a tiny privileged minority. Most, including women, do not enjoy your meagre rights. Welcome to England, June 14, 1215 AD.

The following day, an event took place at Runnymede, near Windsor, which began the long process of transforming English society and that was destined to have a major impact on the world. King John and the English barons signed an agreement known in Latin as Magna Carta or the Great Charter in English. Hastily assembled by the barons, the sixty-two clauses of Magna Carta were written to obtain concessions from King John on issues that were vexing them, including those listed above.

You would not have noticed much change following the signing, and many of its clauses were soon outdated. The document went through changes over almost a century. But Magna Carta was a revolutionary agreement that marked a major turning point in English history and the development of English laws and freedoms. It contained several clauses that introduced timeless principles of justice and liberty. These principles have been immensely influential.

The most famous of these was contained in Clauses 39 and 40. It was the principle of due process of law. The clauses read, “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. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”1 Clause 38 is complementary in that it excludes self-incrimination.

In the fourteenth century, Parliament, appealing to Magna Carta, guaranteed trial by jury. This was a major improvement over trial by oath, contest or ordeal.2 Parliament appealed to Magna Carta again in 1640 to introduce the Habeas Corpus Act, which meant that no one could be held without charge. It upheld individual liberty over despotism. 

Magna Carta inspired the English Bill of Rights in 1689 but, even then, the principles of Magna Carta were finding wider acceptance. The colonialists of America took the principles of Magna Carta with them, where they were eventually embedded in the American Bill of Rights in 1791. Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights and the American Revolution heavily influenced the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, written in 1789. The English Chartists of the nineteenth century were influenced strongly by Magna Carta, as was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

That’s stunning influence for a medieval document. There’s much to inspire in the story of Magna Carta as we celebrate the 800th anniversary of its first signing this year. Yet, there are storm clouds on the horizon too. Terrorism is challenging our commitment to Habeas Corpus. Hard-won freedoms can be lost easily in the name of security. 

There are challenges at other levels. Guy Standing, Professor of Development Studies at the University of London, is concerned that the principle of due process is being undermined in the home of Magna Carta. He writes, “Yet today we have numerous sanctions without due process, and the principle of proportionality has been lost. Successive governments have multiplied the number of acts that can be deemed criminal or misdemeanours, constructing a regime of unaccountable discretionary decisions that blight people’s lives.”3

So, while celebrating the signing of Magna Carta, we need to be alert to the erosion of principles that have given us our freedoms and lifestyle. The Reformation fuelled the desire for religious freedom and civil liberties that was awakened in medieval England. With the declining influence of the Reformation, we should expect to see more pragmatism and less principle in response to contemporary issues.

This is also to be expected because the issues at stake in Magna Carta have never been fully resolved. They have a strangely modern feel when we examine them in the light of our prophetic understanding. The historical context in which Magna Carta was signed is instructive. 

The last successful invasion of England was made by William the Conqueror in 1066 AD. The seizure of lands by the Normans and loss of many ancient freedoms were felt keenly in England. Pope Gregory VII initiated the Investiture Struggle with Dictatus Papae in 1075 AD. Who would invest church officials? Would it be pope or king? By the early twelfth century, the answer was clear. It would be the pope.

That was the case with Henry I of England, who had issued his Charter of Liberties in 1100 AD, an agreement between himself and the prominent barons and earls that was reached in similar circumstances to that which applied more than a century later in Magna Carta. The difficulties for monarchs were exacerbated by the crusades, which created an enormous demand for funds. Competing externally with popes for influence and money and internally with barons for sovereignty made life difficult for English kings during the twelfth century.

When King John came to power in 1199 AD, the simmering tensions between the barons and the king were aggravated by John’s high level of demand for money. After the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury in July 1205 AD, a dispute arose over the appointment of a successor between the king and the clergy. Pope Innocent III rejected both candidates and nominated his own, Stephen Langton. John barred Langton from entering England.

Innocent responded by placing England under interdict, excluding the English people from the rites and services of the church. The dispute dragged on from 1208 to 1213 AD when John was forced to capitulate. The barons were incensed when, as part of the lifting of the interdict, John offered England and Ireland to the pope in perpetuity. John’s defeat in France in 1214 AD was the last straw for the barons.

In early 1215 AD, papal letters arrived in support of John, the baronial revolt developed and, ironically through Langton’s mediation, the Magna Carta was signed on June 15. Innocent annulled the Magna Carta on 24 August 1215 AD, placing himself on the wrong side of history and triggering the First Barons' War. John died in October 1216 AD. 

Magna Carta removed the king’s absolute power. It was the first document to show a monarch’s dependence upon his subjects. It introduced fair and just processes in law and administration. The limited freedoms given to the free men of England would eventually trickle down to all English citizens, although social justice issues remain. This year’s anniversary challenges us to preserve freedoms and advance the cause of fairness and justice in our generation.

  1. <> 
  2. Personal communication with David Fitzgibbon.
  3. Guy Standing, "Celebrate 800 years with a new charter", The Guardian Weekly, January 30, 2015, p 20.

Barry Harker is a retired educator who writes from Lake Macquarie, NSW.