Magna Carta Day: The Forgotten History of Magna Carta Day and What It Commemorates

 

June 15th is Magna Carta Day. While this doesn’t have the same cachet as Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, the history of the Magna Carta is arguably far more important. A number of the rights codified in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights find their origins in the Magna Carta. The charter was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a way to settle tensions between the King of England and some of his barons.

The Magna Carta is the foundation of the Western conception of individual liberties, particularly in the Anglosphere. It is also one of the most mythologized documents in history. Still, many today are unaware of its actual content and the historical context in which it was drafted.

The Origins of the Magna Carta

While much of the historical context is complex, the main point is this: Under the rule of King John in the 13th century, several barons were unhappy with the nebulous nature of rule and administration. The Magna Carta was an attempt to codify the procedures by which the King ruled over his subjects, in particular the barons. The “Great Charter” was renewed by subsequent kings, though under parliamentary rule, much of its main provisions were slowly stripped away.

The dispute that led to the drafting of the Magna Carta revolved around how a king was supposed to rule. It was believed at the time that, while the king had unlimited powers, he should govern with the counsel of his barons using custom as his guide. The Magna Carta is an attempt to address what the rules are for when the king is not ruling in this fashion.

The Magna Carta’s origins are as a failed peace treaty between the king and some of his rebellious barons. King John had been steadily losing his ancestral lands on the continent to King Phillip II of France. To help wage war to maintain these lands, he levied high taxes on his barons. His barons, needless to say, did not care for this. This led to the First Barons’ War, one of the earliest civil wars in England between the king and his nobles.

The main rights established by the Magna Carta are due process of law and its corollary, the right to a fair trial by a jury of one’s peers, the latter of which is spelled out in the Magna Carta. The interpretation of what these rights mean and how they are applied has changed significantly in the nearly 1,000 years since the document was first drafted. What’s more, whenever kings would readopt the charter, they would often amend it to address the issues of the day.

For the most part, these changes are very obscure and very much a product of their times. However, there are some significant trends that are worth discussing in any history of the Magna Carta. For example, in the 16th century, under the rule of Henry VIII, the Magna Carta fell out of favor. Henry VIII mounted a massive propaganda campaign denying any right of the nobles to rebel, while also demanding full support for the Crown in all of its struggles against the papacy. On the other side of things, Catholic rebels frequently cited the Magna Carta when fighting the Crown.

By the end of the 16th century, the view had flipped almost completely. The Magna Carta was seen as the embodiment of ancient, traditional English values that had been overthrown in the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Magna Carta was seen not as a revolution in rights, but a restoration of rights that had existed since time immemorial. This is now regarded as, at best, inaccurate and, at worst, as a complete fabrication and total myth.

By the 17th century, the document became a central part of British political culture. There was increasing tension between the Parliament and the Crown with regard to the proper duties of the latter. The Magna Carta was usually cited in arguments for those who emphasized the power of Parliament when arguing against the Divine Right of Kings. The Parliament was framed as one of the ancient English institutions protected by the charter. After the 1640 revolution and the ensuing Commonwealth, many rejected the idea that the new republic was bound by an agreement made between the Crown and a nobility that no longer existed.

The Magna Carta Beyond England

The history of the Magna Carta is not limited to England and the United Kingdom – as the colonists took it with them to the New World. Many of the charters of the new colonies either explicitly took their verbiage from the Magna Carta, or else codified the principles in the charter into its New World counterparts.

This played heavily into the reasons for the American Revolution. The colonists were not fighting for a new set of rights. Rather, they were asserting the rights enumerated in the Magna Carta – rights that they, as Englishmen, believed were theirs, despite no longer living in England proper. Simply as subjects of the English and later British crowns, these rights were theirs. This is why the Bill of Rights largely restricts the government, rather than enumerating what rights the citizenry has. Rights were considered natural and pre-existing. The Constitution merely acknowledged these and restricted the government from trespassing on them.

In the 19th century, Parliament began repealing parts of the Magna Carta, despite the fact that some legal scholars believed that the Magna Carta could not be repealed. Parliament repealed provisions of the Magna Carta it believed to be obsolete or superseded by other acts of Parliament. Most of the Magna Carta was repealed by statute, with only clauses 1, 9 and 29 remaining in legal effect in England and Wales. It is frequently referenced but carries little legal force in Britain today. It is not, contrary to popular belief, “the English Constitution” — neither England nor the United Kingdom has an official constitution.

The clauses remaining in legal effect can be summarized as follows:

  • I: The freedom and independence for the Church of England. “The Church of England” refers not to the Church of England we know today and can perhaps be better understood as referring to the Roman Catholic Church in England. It is an early example of the tension between the English crown and the papacy, one that existed throughout most of Northern Europe. It is a soft assertion of the supremacy of the Crown over ecclesiastical matters within England.
  • IX: Liberties granted to the City of London. The City of London is not the municipality known as “London,” but a small borough or segment of the city where much of the financial industry in the country resides.
  • XXIX: This is the meat of the Magna Carta and is best reproduced in its entirety:

“NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

While it’s easy to get agitated about “repealed” sections of the Magna Carta, it’s worth noting that a number of the sections are laughably antiquated. For example, no fewer than two clauses refer to proper use of the royal forests, which were an important economic factor in 1215, but in the 21st century are not. Portions referring to death taxes levied on barons, as well as others governing the wardship of nobles, unequal marriages, and payment of dowries and inheritances to the widows of barons were repealed in 1863. Most of the other repealed clauses have the same degree of relevance to modern day life and civil liberties.

However, Clause 29 (XXIX) is the most important and what most people are referencing when they talk about “the Magna Carta.” While the notion of these rights might have existed long prior, the Magna Carta codified them into written words to be handed down through the ages.

The simple act of guaranteeing men the right to a trial by a jury of their peers was the wellspring from which our entire Western concept of civil liberties grew – certainly something to remember and celebrate this Magna Carta Day.

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  1. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    You may not get a lot of feedback/comments, but I’m glad you’re here, ammo.com.

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    “The Reeds of Runnymede”
    (Magna Charta, June 15, 1215)

    Rudyard Kipling 

    AT Runnymede, at Runnymede
    What say the reeds at Runnymede?
    The lissom reeds that give and take,
    That bend so far, but never break,
    They keep the sleepy Thames awake
    With tales of John at Runnymede.

    At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
    Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:–
    “You mustn’t sell, delay, deny,
    A freeman’s right or liberty.
    It makes the stubborn Englishry,
    We saw ’em roused at Runnymede!

    “When through our ranks the Barons came,
    With little thought of praise or blame,
    But resolute to play the game,
    They lumbered up to Runnymede;
    And there they launched in solid time
    The first attack on Right Divine–
    The curt, uncompromising ‘Sign!’
    That settled John at Runnymede.

    “At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
    Your rights were won at Runnymede!
    No freeman shall be fined or bound,
    Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
    Except by lawful judgment found
    And passed upon him by his peers.
    Forget not, after all these years,
    The Charter Signed at Runnymede.”

    And still when Mob or Monarch lays
    Too rude a hand on English ways,
    The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
    Across the reeds at Runnymede.
    And Thames, that knows the moods of kings,
    And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
    Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
    Their warning down from Runnymede

    Notes.

    • #2
  3. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Thank you Ammo and Seawriter, I had forgotten most of this which I had learned in high school. 

    • #3
  4. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I think the most important thing about the Magna Carta was the notion of rights and privileges that are inherent not granted.  That not even the king himself can intrude on all the enumerated zones of rights has been seen by many as a political novation arising out of the power struggles between the king and the nobles.  I am inclined to see it more as an emanation of English notions of Christian concepts of natural rights, a kind of legal restatement needed in chaotic times.  

    • #4
  5. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I think the most important thing about the Magna Carta was the notion of rights and privileges that are inherent not granted. That not even the king himself can intrude on all the enumerated zones of rights has been seen by many as a political novation arising out of the power struggles between the king and the nobles. I am inclined to see it more as an emanation of English notions of Christian concepts of natural rights, a kind of legal restatement needed in chaotic times.

    And it was mostly about the nobles wasn’t it, not really the “common people” or peasants.

    • #5
  6. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I think the most important thing about the Magna Carta was the notion of rights and privileges that are inherent not granted. That not even the king himself can intrude on all the enumerated zones of rights has been seen by many as a political novation arising out of the power struggles between the king and the nobles. I am inclined to see it more as an emanation of English notions of Christian concepts of natural rights, a kind of legal restatement needed in chaotic times.

    And it was mostly about the nobles wasn’t it, not really the “common people” or peasants.

    I believe even rights of serfs were mentioned. And the right to a trial and due process was not limited to nobles. Like the US Code, the interests and rich of the rich get more detailed attention but that misses the hugely important premise that no one is above the law and that the law must respect innate human rights. 

    • #6
  7. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    It was the American Bar Association, in a happier era, that paid for the Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede.

    The Magna Carta memorial in Runnymede was built in 1957 to commemorate the Great Charter and to celebrate what it had inspired in years to come.

    It was designed and built by famous architect Sir Edward Maufe and dedicated in a ceremony on July 28 1957 attended by the Queen.

    The idea of the memorial began in 1956 with the creation of the Magna Carta Trust and it is built on land leased to the American Bar Association (ABA).

    Charles Rhyne, who served as ABA president in 1957-58, spearheaded an effort to build a monument at Runnymede.

    The memorial grounds are maintained by the Magna Carta Trust and improvements to the memorial, such as refurbishment and maintenance, are funded by contributions from ABA members.

    The National Trust owns the land surrounding the memorial but a 999-year lease was granted to the ABA.

    “Over the centuries, Magna Carta has become the embodiment of the principle that no person, no matter how powerful, is above the law,” William Hubbard, ABA president said.

    • #7
  8. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Made sure my kid understood this. We even read a long form kid’s adaptation of Robin Hood. I wanted him to get the feel for the era that fed into the Magna Carta.

    Such great stuff. It is ground 0 for the US constitution. The Mayflower compact was inspired by it and together, they form the foundation of our constitution.

    • #8
  9. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Stina (View Comment):

    Made sure my kid understood this. We even read a long form kid’s adaptation of Robin Hood. I wanted him to get the feel for the era that fed into the Magna Carta.

    Such great stuff. It is ground 0 for the US constitution. The Mayflower compact was inspired by it and together, they form the foundation of our constitution.

    Wasn’t the Mayflower Compact rather socialist, or am I thinking of something else, that Rush used to talk about every Thanksgiving?

    • #9
  10. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Stina (View Comment):

    Made sure my kid understood this. We even read a long form kid’s adaptation of Robin Hood. I wanted him to get the feel for the era that fed into the Magna Carta.

    Such great stuff. It is ground 0 for the US constitution. The Mayflower compact was inspired by it and together, they form the foundation of our constitution.

    Wasn’t the Mayflower Compact rather socialist, or am I thinking of something else, that Rush used to talk about every Thanksgiving?

    The community ran itself rather socialist, but the Mayflower compact gave a voice to the travelers among the group that were not puritans. It agreed to give them equal treatment in the governance and a representative voice in the council. Prior, they were treated as lesser than the puritans.

    • #10
  11. James Salerno Coolidge
    James Salerno
    @JamesSalerno

    Ammo.com, your articles are an excellent addition to Ricochet (now, can you hook me up with some 00 buckshot?)

    I think the globalist progressives could really learn something from this. Elements of our constitution originated in the Magna Carta, but this took centuries to fully mature and develop. The (intended) government that we have today did not appear out of the blue in 1787. This was a centuries-long process that also required Christian beliefs, which go back centuries before even the Magna Carta, and then much later, a reformation of those beliefs. Our elements of individual liberty and representative democracy are not simply drops of medicine we can insert into places like the Middle East and expect instant results.

    • #11
  12. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Dan Jones has an excellent biography of the Magna Carta that’s available on Amazon with that title.  It traces the origins but also its revival with the Glorious Revolution. 

    • #12
  13. Ammo.com Member
    Ammo.com
    @ammodotcom

    kedavis (View Comment):

    You may not get a lot of feedback/comments, but I’m glad you’re here, ammo.com.

    I’m happy to see quite a few people care about Magna Carta Day!

    James Salerno (View Comment):

    Ammo.com, your articles are an excellent addition to Ricochet (now, can you hook me up with some 00 buckshot?)

    I think the globalist progressives could really learn something from this. Elements of our constitution originated in the Magna Carta, but this took centuries to fully mature and develop. The (intended) government that we have today did not appear out of the blue in 1787. This was a centuries-long process that also required Christian beliefs, which go back centuries before even the Magna Carta, and then much later, a reformation of those beliefs. Our elements of individual liberty and representative democracy are not simply drops of medicine we can insert into places like the Middle East and expect instant results.

    Thank you for the kind words! We do have some double-aught in stock right now. Use our Forum Friends discount if you order some! (If I could give it to you for free I would, but the owner might use it on me if I tried.)

    • #13
  14. Gromrus Member
    Gromrus
    @Gromrus

    Several copies of Magna Carta were signed at Runnymede simultaneously and sent out to various locations. There are, therefore, several copies which still exit– one in Salisbury Cathedral, one in the London Guildhall Museum. I believe there is one in the National Archives in D.C. on permanent loan from Ross Perot. The script is tiny and ancient but you can make out at the bottom its intended recipient.

    • #14
  15. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    That is informative, and it seems you nuanced it very well. 

    • #15