On this day in the year 1215, King John of England signed the Magna Carta, or Great Charter. It is hailed as a monarch’s acknowledgment that his power and authority were not absolute, that he is subject to the law of the land, and as one of the first enumerations of human rights. It is, at least symbolically, all of those things.
Nevertheless, we must bear in mind these realities about the Great Charter. It was not signed freely; it was coerced by the English barons—mostly of Norman descent—whose privileges John had infringed in various ways. It only applied to the rights and privileges of the nobles, and to some extent, other free men, such as knights and soldiers. It in no way acknowledged the right of peasants or serfs — the bulk of the population— or women. John, together with the persuasive authority of the Pope, abrogated it soon afterward, Civil war then ensued, ending only on the King’s death the next year. The Charter was later re-issued several times, somewhat modified. The most significant re-issue was that of Edward I in 1297.
Only two of the original articles remain as effective statutes in Great Britain. Those are the first article guaranteeing freedom for the English church, and, the twenty-ninth (from the 1297 version, which combined the 39th and 40th from the one signed by John) article. The latter, arguably the most significant for us today, is here quoted:
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.
This is the substance of the due process clause in the Constitution of the United States, applicable to both the national government and the states, and the constitutions and laws of many other nations. Basically, it means that all persons are free from being divested of their life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Which means, they have the right to be notified of legal proceedings that might deprive them of those rights, the right to be heard in those proceedings, and the right to be judged by the law of the land, applied by their peers, not by whim or arbitrary standards.
This is the bedrock of the Anglo-American legal system, in civil as well as criminal cases. Whatever miscarriages of justice that might occur today, the horror visited upon Josef K in Franz Kafka’s The Trial must not occur. If it does, we call it a lynching.
The greater significance of the Magna Carta is that it was a step toward the abrogation of the Great Chain of Being: a philosophical concept that dominated Medieval thought, and, really, life. As applied to humans, that concept held that everyone was born into their place, and must stay there. Attempting to step out of one’s place was a sin and crime. A noble was born and remained a noble; a peasant was born and remained a peasant. A king was born to be God’s lieutenant on Earth, and had divine authority. Challenging it by deed, word, or even thought was heresy—a capital offense. It has been a long arduous and journey away from that Chain, and it is not entirely complete, even in this country. But Magna Carta was one of the first steps.
Note: A contemporaneous exemplified copy of the 1215 document resides in the chapter house of Salisbury Cathedral. It’s well preserved and is legible (if you can read Latin). Four other known such copies in Lincoln and the British Library are not in as good condition. At the Runnymede meadow where King John is reputed to have agreed to it, the American Bar Association erected a memorial in 1957, attesting to more significance Americans attach to Magna Carta than our British brothers and sisters.