In the summer of 1939 as Hitler’s Panzertruppen were gobbling up Czechoslovakia and then preparing to swallow Poland whole the next year. Britain and France and the Empires were preparing to mobilize for the war just beginning. In New York City, there was a world’s fair, and one of the most popular exhibits was at the British pavilion. It was a long boring legal document written in archaic legal French that hardly an American could read.
And yet more than thirteen million Americans stared in awe at that document. And when the war broke out, it was moved to Fort Knox to be protected alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. It was returned to Lincoln Cathedral in 1946. Rather an extraordinary story, I think.
That document was sealed eight hundred years ago, today, on the field at Runnymede, for Lincoln Cathedral’s copy of Magna Charta is one of only four surviving from 1215. And yes, we were very pleased earlier this year when it made a return visit to the Library of Congress.
Runnymede itself is one of the ancient meeting places of the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot, the forerunner of Parliament at least back to the reign of King Alfred the Great.
The 1215 issue was annulled almost instantly by the Pope, of course, who was the execrable King John’s feudal overlord at the time. Thus signaling the start of a civil war between the King and the barons, which would end only after the King lost his treasure in the Wash and his life to dysentery, at Newark Castle. He was not mourned, some forty years later Matthew Paris, monk and historian at St. Albans Abbey wrote, “Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John”.
And that set up the reign of Henry III, who was a minor at the time, and arguably the greatest of English knights, William the Marshal (of England). First Earl of Pembroke was named as the Regent. He was acceptable to all sides of the conflict because of his character. As one of his first acts, he reissued the Charter in Henry III‘s name. And it stuck this time, sort of.
It sort of went into abeyance during the War of the Roses and the Tudor period, returning as one of the means of resistance to the autocratic Stuart Kings, and this may be why there is a difference in the American reading and the British one. The British seem to read its meaning as parliamentary supremacy, while Americans, taking our cue from the brilliant Edward Coke, who wrote the first Virginia Charter in 1606, have always seen it as applying to both King and Parliament.
Thus its basic thrust is to restrain government power against the individual, in short we call it, “Rule through and under the law”. It is what distinguishes the English speaking world from everybody else.
As an aside, I took a course last winter on Magna Charta from the University of London, and it was fascinating in the the discussion threads, that while Americans and Britons (including Canadians, Australians and such) do have some interpretation differences, they are quite minor. But nobody else, and I mean nobody, had the slightest conception of what we all mean by that phrase, “the Rule of Law”.
Much of Magna Charta, which you’ll know if you’ve read it is concerned with basically mundane things, like fish traps in the Thames. But when you think about it, they aren’t mundane at all. They almost all concern property rights, and how free can you be, if you don’t have secure control of your property? A modern application of that, is that I watch a certain amount of British TV, and one of the staples of the programs about horrible builders are expats in Spain whose property has been retroactively (and usually secretly) declared illegally built, condemned and destroyed without compensation. That’s the kind of thing that the Charter was designed to prevent.
That is also the type of thing that drove the American Revolution, the famous watch-call “No taxation without representation”. Compare it to Article 12 of Magna Charta, “No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm.” Lady Astor in 1940 wasn’t all that far off the mark when she commented that ”it was a revolt of Englishmen against a German King.” Nor was William Pitt the Elder when he remarked that “Magna Charta is England’s Bible”, and Coke was one of the main apostles. It’s interesting to note that in colonial America, the two best selling books were The Bible, and Coke’s legal commentaries.
As early as 1637, Maryland petitioned for the right to include Magna Charta in it’s basic law. It was first published in what would become the United States by William Penn in 1687, saying this:
“In France, and other nations, the mere will of the Prince is Law, his word takes off any man’s head, imposeth taxes, or seizes any man’s estate, when, how and as often as he lists; But in England, each man hath a fixed Fundamental Right born with him, as to freedom of his person and property in his estate, which he cannot be deprived of, but either by his consent, or some crime, for which the law has imposed such a penalty or forfeiture.”
And remember on that day in New York, the rights we are talking about here existed almost entirely in The United Kingdom, what we may call the British empire, for lack of a better term, and in the United States. These days we politely call them human rights, but that is an euphemism, They are God-given rights that we, the English speaking peoples redeemed, for ourselves, by blood and steel, by powder and shot, from those who thought they were entitled to rule us in their interest instead of ours. For the rest of the world, insofar as they have those rights, they are our gift to them.
There is a somewhat later copy, on permanent display, at the US National Archives, together with two of the documents it inspired: the US Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution along with the first ten amendments to that Constitution (usually called the US Bill of Rights), inspired by the English Bill of Rights (often almost verbatim), now like the Charter itself, mostly rescinded in its home country, but still respected and honored here, and enforced, as was always intended, by a free people themselves, instead of a government.
We call them “The Charters of Freedom” and so they are, for people strong enough to hold them, for like all rights, the privilege of living under them carries the duty and the responsibility to maintain them.
So eight hundred years ago today marked a signal victory for the freedom of the individual from the state, and the mere will of the prince. That battle continues today, as it always will.