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9 July, 2015  ▪  Michael Binyon

Little Steps to Great Freedom

Magna Carta as foundation of human rights

It is seen as the foundation of human rights, the original guarantee of the rule of law, the pillar of democracy that prevents a ruler ignoring the will of the people and places a curb on tyranny. Magna Carta – the Great Charter – was signed in a muddy field beside the River Thames 800 years ago, and since then has become the basis of not just English parliamentary democracy but of countless subsequent attempts to regulate human society and uphold human rights and dignity. It laid the foundations centuries later for the Enlightenment in the English-speaking world. It was a key influence in the founding of the United States and the writing of the new nation’s constitution. And its provisions were embedded in the charter that established the United Nations and in the subsequent Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 In fact, Magna Carta did none of these things. It did not grant liberty to the people of England. It did not lay down a constitution. It did not say anything about universal human rights. Nor did it insist that a ruler had to be moral, righteous or honest in leading a nation. But over the centuries it has become a powerful symbol of freedom, democracy and human rights and it is now universally revered as the first and most crucial attempt in medieval Europe to establish the equal rights of all human beings under the rule of law.

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That is why the anniversary of its signature has just been celebrated in Britain with great pomp and ceremony. That is why the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister met again beside the river at Runnymede, not far from Windsor, on June 15 to pay tribute to Magna Carta and acknowledge its monumental contribution to the cause of liberty around the world. And that is why the Attorney General of the United States, representing the most powerful democracy in the world, joined them and spoke of the vital importance this document has played in defining the sort of society that America has become.

Today it is often noted that those countries that did not take any similar steps to limit the power of their rulers have never enjoyed the same freedoms or commitment to democracy that England has known for a very long time. No limit was ever placed on the autocratic rule of the Russian tsars – which may explain why the country had Stalin. Over the centuries, no German prince was forced to abide by the will of the people – and so modern Germany saw the rise of Hitler.

Most people have forgotten the details of why Magna Carta was signed. All they know is that in 1215 King John, regarded as being one of the worst of the early English kings, was forced to sign a peace treaty with the powerful barons who had taken up arms against his tyrannical rule. They chose the marshy site by the river Thames because the land was so wet that neither the king nor the barons could bring an army there. The barons were angry that King John had thrown many of them into prison without trial and had tried to dominate the affairs of the Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church in England, acted as an intermediary and drew up a peace treaty that promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. The provisions were to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. But in fact neither side stuck to their promises. And the document itself was soon annulled by Pope Innocent III.

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But by chance Magna Carta had a second life. King John died a year later, and his son Henry III came to the throne as a weak boy controlled by a family group of regents. They needed to win power and support for the new king, and so reissued the document in 1216. At the same time they also issued a second document, called the Charter of the Forest, which did indeed promise rights and protection to ordinary people, and crucially allowed them access to the forests and lands where they lived. This second charter has been more or less forgotten, but it marked the first attempt to give some economic and human rights to ordinary villagers and labourers, most of whom were still serfs. But Magna Carta was itself also reissued in 1225 in exchange for the King’s right to levy new taxes. And from then on it was reissued by each succeeding new king and became part of England’s statute law.

It is this point that is important – the rule of law. Justice was still fairly arbitrary in those days. Life for most ordinary people was nasty, brutish and short. But even in those days it became accepted that people could not be thrown into prison without a trial and that justice must be independent of the king. This provision was supplemented with the law, Habeas Corpus, which had been passed earlier but was then reaffirmed later, which challenged a court to produce for trial any person held in prison. This, plus Magna Carta, have formed the underlying principle of English common law, which is also the basis for the legal system in America and most other English-speaking countries.

The political myth of Magna Carta as the foundation of liberty in England grew over the centuries. It was repeatedly held up as a key provision of the law whenever there was a dispute between the monarch and parliament – and was an argument much used during the English civil war, which led to the execution of the king and the temporary transformation of English into a republic in the mid-1600s. Much of its actual content was in fact removed by parliament from the statute books by various new laws in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the principle remained supreme. The most senior English judge in recent times described it as "the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot".

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The ceremonies marking the 800th anniversary were remarkable for several reasons. First, they brought together again the same three traditional pillars of British government – the monarchy, the church and the prime minister – that existed in the 13th century, although nowadays the prime minister represents the people instead of the barons, and the Church does not have the political or religious power that it had 800 years ago. Secondly, the attendance by Loretta Lynch, the US attorney general, demonstrated the common constitutional commitment to liberty and the rule of law by both the British and US governments. And thirdly, for the first time there is now an official British memorial plaque and statue, unveiled by the Queen, on the site where the document was signed. Until recently the only memorial was one donated by the United States in 1957.  

The charter was written in abbreviated Latin by quill pen on vellum sheets. Each bears a large royal seal in beeswax. Only four original copies of Magna Carta survive, one in the British Library and the other three in two English cathedrals.

Ironically, Britain is now engaged in a great debate about a proposal by the present Conservative government to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights – largely because of anger over the way this postwar treaty has often made it difficult for Britain to deport terrorists and has been seen as intrusive into Britain’s legal system.

But the wider relevance of the document was widely noted – especially in relation to countries such as Russia where there is a growing fear that the government is failing in its provisions to uphold the rule of law and individual human rights. The Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, rededicated the US memorial, saying Magna Carta “provides us with one of our most basic doctrines - that no person is above the law. In recent history and even today we see in many parts of the world that power without the rule of law can lead to human suffering of terrible proportions. But it takes all of us to stand up for these principles.”


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