by Judi John
2015 is the 800th anniversary of English law’s most momentous landmark – the signing of Magna Carta. For the first time, the king’s absolute rule was limited and the first step taken towards civil liberties and individual rights for all.
On a Surrey riverbank in June 1215, a group of barons did the unthinkable – they forced their despotic king to sign a paper restricting his own power and safeguarding the rights, privileges and liberties of the nobles and clergy.
The signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede by King John – after a lot of arm twisting – marked the most significant shift to date in the balance of power between ruler and ruled. John, not one of England’s brightest or most trustworthy monarchs, had managed to fall out most of his family and the church, and to alienate the nobility through over-taxation to fund wars with France which he continually lost.
Cruel, greedy and an all-round failure as a king, John was captured by his exasperated barons in May 1215. He caved in to their demands and signed a document known as Magna Carta – Latin for “Great Charter”.
The ink was barely dry on the charter, however, when the Pope annulled it, declaring it illegal and having been sealed under duress. But the ideas of rights and freedoms were now out there in the public domain. Even the king was now subject to the common law of the land, not above it. And in a prudent move to make sure it stayed that way, around a dozen copies of the charter were made and sent around the kingdom. Four of these survive today, at Salisbury and Lincoln cathedrals, and two in the British Library.
The original version of Magna Carta was revised several times in the 13th Century, and the 1297 version become part of English law.
King John, however, never lived with the consequences of his climbdown – he died of dysentery, aged 50, in October 1215.
“The greatest constitutional document of all time”
Over the past 800 years, Magna Carta’s key clauses of liberty and justice have not only seen off hundreds of attempts at annulment, repeal, modification and suspension by successive monarchs and governments, but have sparked progressive change. The charter paved the way for trial by jury, proclaimed religious liberties, defined limits on taxation and has influenced constitutional ideas worldwide.
In 1965 Lord Denning – who divides opinion but is regarded as the 20th century’s paramount judge and was a fierce upholder of fairness and justice – described Magna Carta as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.
Power to the people
Other historical landmarks tracing their legacy from Magna Carta include:
1264: the first ever directly elected Parliament, established by nobleman Simon de Montfort in defiance of King Henry III, made up of elected knights and representatives from boroughs throughout the kingdom.
1642–1651: the English Civil War which, for another king trying to impose “absolute” rule, came to a far more dramatic conclusion – via a scaffold. It saw the spirit of Magna Carta reignited in the Putney Debates of 1647, where soldiers, Levellers and other radicals explored ground-breaking ideas of equality and democracy, including universal suffrage.
1679: the Habeas Corpus Act – the phrase is Latin for “you may have the body” – protected individual liberty and prevented unlawful or arbitrary imprisonment.
1776: the US Declaration of Independence – every American knows that “no taxation without representation” was the colonists’ demand to King George III. Thomas Jefferson, one of the key drafters of the Declaration, not only paid tribute to the Levellers of the Putney Debates as an inspiration for the American Revolution, but used the breaches of Magna Carta by King George as justification for the creation of an independent country.
1789: the French Revolution – an inept monarchy, seemingly oblivious to the hardships of its people and their hatred of the wealth and privilege of the nobility and clergy, paid the ultimate price. The royals came to a nasty end – again with the aid of a sharp blade – and a form of government demanded which would be more responsive to the rights of its citizens.
1791: the Bill of Rights – the collective name for the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. They guaranteed a number of personal freedoms, limited the government’s power in judicial and other proceedings, and defined citizens’ rights under the Constitution.
1948: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, following World War II, was the first global expression of rights and basic freedoms to which all are entitled, and has been adopted by many countries around the world. Eleanor Roosevelt, credited with its inspiration, referred to it as “the international Magna Carta for all mankind”.
But is it still valid today?
Only three of the charter’s original clauses are still law. One defends the freedom and rights of the church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third is the most famous:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
This is the one that guarantees access to justice and trial by jury, as reflected today in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms – the right to a fair trial, including the right to a public hearing before an independent tribunal within reasonable time, the presumption of innocence, and other minimum rights for those charged with a criminal offence.
Human rights in the 21st century
Eight centuries after the charter was signed, human rights violations are sadly still ongoing in many countries. State repression, torture and violence are widespread in nations such as those in the Middle East and North Africa, while in countries with emerging economies, offences around exploitation and poverty-level pay are growing.
Governments often justify human rights violations by talking of the need for national security—while in reality, it is such violations which make the world a more a dangerous place.
Amnesty International’s 2014/15 annual report cites 2014 as a ‘nadir’ for human rights due to the high number of wars and conflicts. It also makes the point, however, that even when times seem the most bleak, lasting change can be created through confronting those responsible for abuses. Magna Carta and everything which has flowed from it over the last eight hundred years proves this to be true.