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IT WAS JUNE 15, 1215, that King John of England granted concessions to 25 of his barons at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of what’s now central London. From then on, Magna Carta has been recognized as a key acknowledgement of law over absolute power.
As detailed in recent issues of London Review of Books, April 23, 2015, and BBC History, February 2015, Magna Carta is also a fountainhead of wonderful tidbits, several of which I share here.
For instance, its 63 clauses were originally presented on vellum (treated calf-skin parchment) in some 3550 words of abbreviated Latin. Because this language lacks a definite article “the,” it’s historically cool to refer to the document as Magna Carta, not the Magna Carta.
King John had a tough act to follow: Everyone loved Richard Couer de Lion (the Lion Hearted), at least in part because of his benign neglect: He sallied off for three and a half years on the Third Crusade, got locked up in Dürnstein Castle and, it is said, listened for Blondel’s ballad. He also cost England a huge ransom for his return.
By contrast, in the LRB’s “Back to Runnymede,” Ferdinand Mount describes King John as “a deeply unpleasant character, bad-tempered and vengeful, a cruel tease in a good mood and a beast in a bad one.”
Not that the barons at Runnymede were Founding Fathers of British democracy. In fact, one of Magna Carta’s clauses concerned unjustly seized estates. A dozen of these were promptly returned to several of the 25 barons, in what Mount writes was “the most barefaced example of self-interest in the proceedings.”
Others of its clauses were rather more altruistic. Clause One, which continues to this day, guarantees “that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole rights and Liberties inviolable.” This referred to Roman Catholicism at the time; Henry VIII’s nationalization of Holy Mother the Church wasn’t to come for another 319 years.
Ironically, Magna Carta’s liberties gave ecclesiastical courts a privileged position during the 1400s with regard to persecuting heretics, even to confessions extracted by torture. As noted in BBC History magazine’s “The Amazing Legacy of Magna Carta,” Nicholas Vincent observes, “To this extent, in the fight for religious toleration, Magna Carta served as a witness both for the prosecution and the defence.”
By the way, there was no signing of the document, only the Great Seal of the Realm affixed with beeswax and resin. Within days of the sealing, copies were sent to a dozen bishops of the realm to be read to parishioners.
Within two months, King John complained to Pope Innocent III that he had been bamboozled (perhaps not his precise word) and, based on this, the Pope declared Magna Carta null and void. This precipitated two Battles of the Barons, didn’t forestall King John’s death of dysentery at the age of 49 in 1216, and led to a flurry of Magna Carta reissues in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297, the first three sealed by John’s son, Henry III, the last by Henry’s son, Edward I. They weren’t the last to reaffirm its charter, though doing so became increasing pro forma over the centuries. (South Carolina, 1836; North Dakota as recently as 1943.)
Founding Fathers of the U.S. were well read in Magna Carta nuances, particularly the principle of “No taxation without representation.” BBC History magazine’s Vincent observes, “As a result, even today, Magna Carta commands a reverence in America that equals—indeed arguably outstrips—that which it enjoys in Britain….far more of Magna Carta survives in American than in British law.”
Three specific Magna Carta elements remain in British statutes today: the Church of England’s freedom; another preserving ancient liberties of the City of London, other cities, boroughs, towns and ports; and “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be dispossessed of his Freehold, or Liberties… save by the lawful judgement of his Peers, or by the Law of the land.”
There are quibbles about the Latin rendering of “Freeman,” even with later Magna Carta versions that granted rights to other than “tenants-in-chief,” several hundred earls and greater barons. Should it be interpreted as “mankind,” free of gender implications? In the 1200s, not likely.
However, Magna Carta did grant widows access to their dowers and inheritances, and also protected them from compulsory remarriage. Yet, another clause citing femina stated that no one could be arrested for murder on a woman’s accusation except if the victim happened to be her husband.
At least she was relieved of Trial by Combat. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015