Anniversaries, personal and national, come and go. But the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta June 15th ought not to be given short shrift.
In an increasingly ahistorical contemporary society, where even our schools and universities relegate the story of the past – to coin a phrase – to the dustbin of history, it is good to pause for a moment to remind ourselves how important was this moment in our history. We say “our” because, above all else, the Magna Carta is an important cornerstone of the whole network of modern Western democratic society.
Ironically, the participants in the events which led to the 4,000-word Latin document inscribed on sheepskin parchment and sealed at Runnymede on the Thames near London were probably unaware of their momentous undertaking. It was, after all, a largely accounts’ record of weights and measures, the placement of fish-traps, and the treatment of French mercenaries and Welsh hostages. And although it was the product of the Archbishop of Cantebury’s attempt to prevent a war between England’s aristocrats and King John, it did neither. John immediately called on Pope Innocent III to annul it [which he did], and the hostilities broke out anyway.
Yet the very fact that a document had been signed which established the rights of the aristocracy – if not the people as a whole – to curb the powers of an absolute monarch was to set a precedent which would be irrefutable in later English history. After a temporary French occupation and John’s death, the regent for his nine-year-old heir, William Marshal, repudiated John’s repudiation of the document and with considerable “editing” reissued it in 1216. And again when William III [John’s son] needed cash from the aristocracy, again against the French, he reissued it in 1217 with a memorable pledge that¨“neither we nor our heirs will determine anything by which the liberties contained in this charter be violated or weakened.” Again and again, over the centuries, British kings had to call up ‘the Great Charter” as the basis on which they shared their power, first with the aristocracy, and then, grudgingly, with the parliament.
The fact that the original document concerned itself with mundane economic problems might well have been its salvation. Sections 39, “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”, and 40 ,”To no one will we deny or delay right or justice”, were if not afterthoughts, only coping with the general intent which was to arm the barons against the king. But it was those basic tenets, establishing the rights of the society against the arbitrariness of individual rulers, that began the long and steady march of the Anglo-Saxon societies toward modern representative government.
Today when those concepts, as always, are so much under attack in so many parts of the world, celebrating the Magna Carta becomes an obligation and not just a ceremony.