Magna Carta – 800th Anniversary of England’s Famous Historical Document

Written by Yvonne Rowles

In a quiet corner of the Surrey countryside near Windsor, called Runnymede, with the River Thames quietly flowing by, a document was signed by a king of England and his barons in June 1215, which rings down through the centuries in importance and significance: Magna Carta.

The king was John (1166 –1216), son of Henry II and brother of Richard the Lionheart. The barons were some of the great men of the realm, earls and barons including “the best knight that ever lived” William Marshall.

In the year’s previous to 1215, John had proved an unpopular king. His nickname was “lackland” (Norman French sanz terre) meaning “without land”. He was despotic and money grabbing, ruthlessly exhorting fines and raising taxes. He took hostages at will and deprived barons of their lands without legal process, always acting in an arbitrary manner. Even in a cruel age, he could be cruel to those who threatened him.

More serious than that, he lost the English lands in Normandy, (Battle of Bouvines 1214) which had belonged to the English crown and nobility since William the Conqueror’s time. The loss of their valuable, hereditary estates in Normandy caused great resentment amongst the barons. So great was the feeling against him that there was a plot by the powerful northern barons to have John killed.

Into this bubbling cauldron, we can add the quarrel with the Church. John had a dispute with pope Innocent III over the appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent’s choice was Stephen Langton and he was appointed and consecrated. When John refused to recognise Langton, the pope placed England under an Interdict: churches were shut, bells stopped ringing, the clergy were forbidden to carry out marriages and burials. It is perhaps hard for us to understand today, but in an age of faith and religious devotion, this hit all levels of society hard and there was mounting discontent against the king.

Under pressure from all sides, John recalled Stephen Langton from exile in 1213 and ac-cepted him as Archbishop of Canterbury. Pope Innocent, having won the argument, lifted the Interdict and thereafter supported John in his conflict with the barons. Stephen Langton was a university professor, a man of piety and learning -the foremost Eng-lish churchman of his day. He may well have played a central role in drafting the charter. If he did not actually wield the pen, he was certainly the inspiration behind many chapters. Lo-cal folklore says that John and Stephen prayed together before signing the Charter. Lang-ton acted as mediator between King and barons– a peace making role. Stephen’s inspiration-al leadership and the barons military strength forced the reluctant John to sign Magna Carta and to make concessions to both Church and barons.

The Charter’s first clause was almost certainly drafted by Stephen Langton:

“The Church in England shall be free and shall have all her rights and liberties inviolable …” This ensured that the Church would be free to choose its own bishops and conduct its affairs without royal interference. It also protected church lands and property, which had sometimes been appropriated by John.

Chapter 39 was especially significant “No freeman is to be arrested imprisoned or dispossessed….save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land“

Chapter 40 “To no one will we deny or delay right or justice “ Both these clauses enshrine the very important principle of the rule of law.

The role of the Church was considerable both before and after the Charter. As well as the archbishop of Canterbury, at least another eleven other bishops were present at the signing. In guiding the Charter, Langton showed great moral courage. He stood up, not just for the Church, but also for the rights of ordinary people.

John probably didn’t intend to keep his promises made at Runnymede.

However, after the reign of John, the Charter continued to be upheld by archbishop Stephen Langton, during the reign of John’s infant son and successor, Henry III. This ensured that its principles were not forgotten. In a twist of fate, the grasping king, who had spent much of his reign exhorting money from the Church and his subjects, in 1216 lost a fortune in the crown jewels in Norfolk. Journeying to one of his castles, carts loaded with all John’s personal possessions -gold goblets, silver plate, coins etc. were lost in the marshes of the Wash. John died a few days later, 18th October 1216 – for all his efforts, a poorer king!

Magna Carta, 800 years after its signing, still forms the basis for human rights. The pursuit of equality clauses contributed to the Abolition of the Slave Trade by William Wilberforce in England and Abraham Lincoln in America. The Constitution of India and the emerging democracies of eastern Europe have enshrined key principles of the Charter. Its passages were quoted by Nancy Astor, in the battle for Votes for Women during the Suffragette Movement in the early 1900s.

Magna Carta was a document beyond its time. It was intended to be permanent, although the barons would be surprised if they knew of its long history after their lifetimes.

“These liberties underwritten to have and to hold them and their heirs, of us and our heirs for ever”

Throughout the ages it formed the basis for law and democracy in the civilised world and it underpins human rights and the structure of our society. This year, on the 800th anniversary, amongst the many appraisals , it should not be forgotten that the Catholic Church in England in the person of Stephen Langton particularly, was central in the process of establishing human rights and championing the cause of social justice.

To mark the anniversary, the four original 1215 charters will be displayed at the British Library this year.