Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), guest blogger
“The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history . . . It was written in Magna Carta.”
–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Third Inaugural address (1941)
On June 15, in the year 1215 AD, the King of England was an involuntary “guest” of a group of forty rather angry Barons in a field at Runnymede. After the Barons explained “the facts of life” to him, King John affixed his Seal to a document they called the Magna Carta. In those days, documents were not signed, as is the custom today. Instead of a signature, the official Seal of the person “signing” was impressed into hot wax poured onto the document.
King John consented to the Baron’s demands, sealing the document in hope of averting a civil war. Ten weeks later, Pope Innocent III proclaimed the Magna Carta document null and void, plunging England into a civil war the King and Barons had hoped to avoid. Fortunately, for posterity and the law, King John died before Pope Innocent III’s decree became law. He died only 15 months after sealing the Magna Carta.
Although this magnificent document did not solve King John’s immediate problems, it was reissued in multiple copies after his death, and was read to the people throughout England. In fact, when the first English settlers landed on the shores of Colonies around the world, they took their rights with them.
Years later, when the American Colonies decided to break away from control by England, the writers of the Declaration of Independence and new Constitution had the rights first enumerated in the Magna Carta very much in mind.
Exact copies of the document, called “exemplifications,” were made, so all of the participants would each have one of the originals. The picture above is of one of the four original exemplifications. This copy has been conserved and restored by the Archives responsible for it. There was a copy for the Royal archives, one for each of the Barons, and one for each of the 40 counties existing in England at the time. If there was a single ‘master copy’ of the first Magna Carta sealed by King John on this date in 1215, it has not survived. Four of the original exemplifications still exist, one of them in the National Archives of the United States.
There have been a number of reissues of the Magna Carta, in several versions. In 1759, Sir William Blackstone wrote an analysis of the Magna Carta, which he titled, The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest. In that treatise, Blackstone created the numbering system for the sections, which are still in use today.
Some later versions were edited for the benefit of the nobleman or landowner commissioning the reproduction, however, hidden away near the middle of the dense Latin manuscript in the original are these words:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled … except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”
This was a legal concept unknown at the time until the Barons inserted it into the document to be sealed by King John. For the first time in history, the right of habeas corpus was made law.
The rights of the common person, the peasants, and other commoners of the day were probably not very high on the list of priorities of the Barons. However, and probably unwittingly, they unleashed human rights on the people in ways they could hardly have imagined. Here are just two excerpts:
“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”
“To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”
So let’s wish The Great Charter a happy 798th birthday. There are already plans in the works at several historical sites to celebrate the 800th anniversary in 2015.
The floor is open for discussion, and if anyone has any ideas on how to bring it (and its progeny) back as enforceable–and enforced–law, I am certainly interested.