Eight hundred years ago today, the barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta – the great charter – a document confirming the limits on his power and the protections guaranteed to free-born Englishmen.
Not much to look at, as founding documents go, is it?
And some of the contents are a bit dated. We no longer worry about the government charging a fee for permission to marry an heiress, or the abuse of fish-traps in rivers, people making donations to charities and then claiming the donation back, restricting the testimony of women in capital cases unless it involves the death of her husband, or standardized measures for wine and cloth. We do worry about trial by a jury of our peers, rights of inheritance, protection of property in legal cases, witnesses testifying instead of the magistrate taking the sheriff’s word as the final say, and limits on what the government (the king) can require and charge, and protection of free trade.
I’ve been to Bury St. Edmunds, where the barons gathered and drew up the document before they met King John at the Thames River meadow called Runnymede. The great pilgrimage church is now a ruin in a garden, but it was a fascinating way to start a history tour (a WWII history tour, interestingly enough).
The British didn’t think too much about Magna Carta for quite a while. King John thought as little of it as possible, which led to the barons coming after him again. His successors ignored it as much as they could. But it kept reappearing in the idea that there are positive limits to the power of the king, and that free-born men (citizens we would call them) have certain rights the government cannot infringe upon. The North American Colonists, some of them, took those ideas and ran with them.
For a whole lot more about Magna Carta, look at: magnacarta800th.com
I’ll let Rudyard Kipling have the final word. He wrote this to be included in a history textbook.
|“The Reeds of Runnymede”|
|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 pay a 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!