Tyranny and Triumph at Runnymede: John, Magna Carta, and the Foundation of Western Liberty
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King John of England is the whipping boy of constitutional history. Held in such contempt, no other king of England has been given what is an otherwise common English name. But he did have some other names. John was called “John Lackland” because of primogeniture—being the youngest son of Henry II and Elinor he received little by way of inheritance. He was also called “John Softsword” because it was common knowledge that he ran from a fight with the King of France, Philip Augustus in 1204. He is said to have met his ignominious end by glutting himself on raw peaches and cider.
King John was not a good man
He had his little ways
And sometimes no one spoke to him
for days and days and days. A.A. Milne, Now We Are Six
John excelled at agitation, immorality, and incompetence. He conspired with his brother Richard to overthrow their aging father, Henry II. He also tried (and failed) to take the throne from Richard. He probably had his nephew Arthur of Brittany murdered in 1203. The people hated him: he seized their food, timber, horses and carts. The Pope hated him: he argued with the Pope over the appointment of church officials. And finally, he was unpopular with the barons. John’s reputation as the “softsword” was earned when he lost his French territory in Normandy to Phillip Augustus in 1204. And the baron's cup of indignation was about full by 1213 when John lost England itself, surrendering it as a fiefdom to Pope Innocent III. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langdon, and the barons were outraged at John’s capitulation to the church of Rome. Together, they produced the “Articles of the Barons.” John was forced to meet the barons at Runnymede after they had taken control of London. Runnymede was a swamp, but it was strategically located. There on June 15, 1215 John signed the Magna Carta, the “Great Charter.”
Chapter 39 of the Great Charter granted this provision which is one of the most important to constitutionalism:
No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go upon him, or send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.
While many flowery accolades are laid at the feet of the Great Charter, the agreement made between the barons and John is a very practical one and does not contain the “we hold these truths to be self-evident” language of the Declaration of Independence. It is not a document of “universal human rights” or other vaunted ideals. It did not even lament the use of power, only its abuse. The document forced John to make concessions to the barons and to the Church. The barons attempted to distinguish between arbitrary rule and the rule of law. It is this establishment of the “rule of law” by charter that would lay the foundation for western constitutionalism.
The liberties and freedoms in Magna Carta did not apply to the general public at first. Over time, Magna Carta became a symbol of English liberty and many of the rights contained in it were applied to all Englishmen. After John, the parliament confirmed the Magna Carta. Under Edward I Parliament standardized the document in 1297. Later, Edward III (1368) demanded that Magna Carta be “holden and kept in all points; and if there shall be any statute made to the contrary, it shall be holden to none.” Here we see the seeds of a constitution acting as a “fundamental” or “supreme” law. During the 17th century English Puritans used the document to oppose the monarchy. They asserted that the document did not just apply to the aristocracy, but to everyone. This had the effect of giving Magna Carta a more vital role in English law.
About the time the Puritans were extending the application of Magna Carta in England, the Magna Carta was making its way across the Atlantic and into North America, Magna Carta showed up in the “Parallels of Massachusetts” which said that the rights within Magna Carta are not to be denied the citizens of Massachusetts. Later, the colonists formed their own bill of rights with the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641). In William Penn’s Frame of Government (1682) Penn drew upon Magna Carta to make his document and was responsible for the first printing of the Great Charter in the colonies. Its importance to American constitutionalism is that many of the prohibitions on government action and the freedoms contained within the Bill of Rights (up to 20% of them) were contained in Magna Carta.
Today, many of the statutory features of Magna Carta have been whittled away by act of Parliament. However, there is no doubt that the foundation for many of our modern liberties lie with that great document that was sealed by England's most notorious tyrant over 700 years ago.
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