In the movies, Prince John of England is associated with the legend of Robin Hood. In popular literature, he was the bad prince, who became the acting ruler of the country in the absence of his brother, the idealized crusader Richard I, who was known as the Lionheart.
In history, Prince John maneuvered to replace his brother before it was his turn to wear the crown. John failed at that, but was forgiven and went on to ascend to the throne after Richard died in 1199. King John then fought a disastrous war in France, expending his political capital very quickly, by losing many English holdings on the continent while taxing his subjects to the hilt to pay for the war.
Finally, seeing John in an increasingly vulnerable position, a self-appointed group of barons rose up in arms. Seething with wrath over his arbitrary behavior, his cruelty and blatant extortions, these 25 rebellious noblemen forced the king to accept a list of painful concessions that would thunder down the corridors of time under the name Magna Carta, the great charter, universally recognized as one of the most brilliant hallmarks in the history of freedom and democracy.
As William S. McKechnie, a leading authority on the Magna Carta in the last century, described the situation in 1215: “King John, bending before a storm he had raised but could not lay, set the great seal of England on a Charter of Liberties.” The event was memorable, McKechnie added, “because of its clear enunciation of the principle that the caprice of despots must bow to the reign of law, that the just rights of individuals, as defined by law and usage, must be upheld against the personal will of kings.”
Copies of the document, known as “exemplifications” were distributed throughout the kingdom on sheepskin parchments in one long unbroken stream of words. A convention established in the eighteenth century counted 63 “clauses” or “chapters” in the Latin text. Among them, a cluster of three key promises has come to exemplify the essence of the charter as a whole.
(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
(39) 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 way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Although, the charter was written in a hurry and under extraordinary pressure, the language is luminous. “As the gold-finer will not of the dust, threads or shreds of gold, let pass the least crumb, in respect of the excellency of the metal, so ought not the learned reader to pass any syllable of this law, in respect of the excellency of the matter,” wrote Sir Edward Coke, a jurist of the Shakespearian era.
Needless to say, the influence of the Magna Carta has been enormous, sweeping and enduring, although it has always been a vulnerable target of reactionary forces.
The American colonies held tightly to those age-old values from their English heritage that codified their civil and human rights. Even as they distanced themselves from crown rule, they incorporated the language and spirit of the Magna Carta in their own enterprises in the earliest royal charters, throughout the colonial period, and then most significantly in the first ten amendments to the Constitution of 1789, also known as the Bill of Rights.
Always the object of a countervailing impulse by the kingly assumptions of privilege and if not those the urgent necessities of executive government, these liberating values met resistance from the beginning.
David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and historian, whose six-volume History of England was written on the eve of the of the American Revolution, portrayed the two faces of King John, who “seemed to submit passively to all these regulations, however injurious to majesty.” John met the terms he had to meet right away, but he only pretended “that his government was thenceforth to run in a new tenor, and be more indulgent to the liberty and independence of his people.” While at the same time, “he only dissembled till he should find a favorable opportunity for annulling his concessions.”
There was a great irony that Hume captured, in John’s sense of “perpetual and total subjection under his own rebellious vassals,” to the point that, “he was determined, at all hazards to throw off so ignominious a slavery.” It could not be more clearly expressed that freedom for the people was like slavery for the king, who may retreat, but only “to meditate the most fatal vengeance against all his enemies.” By extension, we should be able to see that we are no longer talking only about a royal despot, but about the tempting opportunities of supreme powers by a ruling class in general.
Even the magnificent charter always had an underside. Come to find out, along with a wholesome freedom-loving influence of the English legal tradition, there was still no end to the royal foot-dragging. When the colony of Maryland, for example, passed a bill in 1638 specifically enacting the Magna Carta, it was vetoed by King Charles I, because it might have been inconsistent with the rights of the crown.
A hundred years ago, for the 700th anniversary f the Magna Carta, the Royal Historical Society formed a prestigious committee that contemplated a celebration that would include a visit to the meadow of Runnymede and a speech to honor the hallowed spot where the fateful encounter between King John and the barons had occurred. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 disrupted most of those plans. As it turned out, a speech to the historical society by William McKechnie, a few lines of which are quoted above, was the only event for the anniversary.
Five days before the date of the anniversary, there was issued without fanfare on June 10, 1915, one of the most oppressive regulations in the modern history of Britain, permitting arbitrary detention without trial of suspicious individuals, almost a perfect example of the obverse of the Magna Carta.
In the United States these days, a nebulous war that is both declared and undeclared against terrorism, has been used to erode centuries of established guarantees concerning individual rights, privacy and human dignity. Perhaps these circumstances seem fully to justify a little tax on our fragile sovereignty from time to time. Nevertheless, if these trends persist and if we don’t watch out now for the Magna Carta and the even greater job of expanding our storehouse of freedoms, we may find before another hundred years has passed, that we have given away the store.