Eight Hundred years ago in June, King John of England signed Magna Carta, a word most English speaking peoples recognise, but what actually was it?
Other than Normandy, By 1204 England had lost most of her ancestral landholdings in France, but King John, an unpopular monarch, continued fighting for many years to regain them. To this end, he repeatedly raised taxes on the barons and the people. When storms destroyed his navy - and when much of his army succumbed to dysentery, by 1214 he failed in his military expedition to France. On his return to England, the king found himself faced with the combined distrust of his rebel barons in the north and east of England who were determined to resist his rule. The rebel leadership was unimpressive by the standards of the time, even disreputable, but the knights were united in their hatred of the king.
In order to bring an end to the subsequent civil war, King John agreed to come to Runnymede near Windsor and meet with his barons to discuss their problems but in reality, this was a delaying tactic to buy time until his mercenary army arrived. However, once the barons had captured London, they were able to force the king to negotiate.
On 15th June 1215, King John, the third of the Angevin kings, (the kings of England were also Counts of Anjou in France), signed Magna Carta or The Great Charter at Runnymede, in which he agreed to make peace with the rebel barons. First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the charter laid down the essential principles of good government. It promised the protection of Church rights; the protection of the barons from illegal imprisonment; access to swift justice; and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. This charter was to be upheld through a council of 25 barons.
In August the same year, Magna Carta was annulled by the Pope but following King John's death the following year, it was re-enacted by the regents for his nine-year-old son and heir, Henry III.
Unsurprisingly, the original agreement was not adhered to by either the Church or by the barons. It was subsequently re-drafted several times until 1297 when King Edward III confirmed it as a part of England's statute law. Thereafter it was renewed by each monarch until the end of 16th century. In 17th century, Magna Carta was used to argue against the Divine Right of Kings advocated by both James I and Charles I of England (who lost his head predominantly due to his intransigence over his Divine Right to rule.) Thereafter, Parliament and the will of the people were deemed to have a greater say in the laws of the land than the monarch.
The political myth of Magna Carta and its protection of ancient personal liberties persisted even after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 which established the Protestant King William of Orange and his English-born Queen, Mary as joint King and Queen of England. However, this concept of personal liberties first introduced by Magna Carta continued to be believed well into the 19th century. Lawyers made the charter an essential foundation for the contemporary powers of the English Parliament and legal principles such as habaes corpus.
Magna Carta also influenced the early American colonists in the Thirteen Colonies and the 1771 Bill of rights. Furthermore, in 1789, it was used in the formation of the American Constitution which became the supreme law of the land in the new republic of the United States.
On 4th July 1776, the American Declaration of Independence was penned by Thomas Jefferson. English Common Law, enshrined within Magna Carta, was incorporated in that declaration.
"No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, stripped of his rights or possessions, outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land. To no one will We sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."
The principles enshrined in Magna Carta form the basis of key democratic ideals including equality before the law and human rights. Thereafter, English rulers could no longer govern unchallenged or without consent. In this way, Magna Carta led to democratic institutions such as Parliament and is the cornerstone of the English Constitution, laying the foundations of democracy which are shared not only in the United Kingdom but across the world; from the USA to India, from Europe to Australia.
Although later research showed that the original 1215 charter had concerned the medieval relationship between the monarch and the barons rather than the rights of ordinary people, nevertheless, it still forms an important symbol of liberty today. Both the British and American legal communities continue to hold Magna Carta in great respect.
"As an idea, it won't lie down; as a formal document it won't stand up" was said about Magna Carta in the 18th century, but happily its principles still shadow our laws today.
Princess Michael is the author of several non-fiction histories and the acclaimed 'Anjou Trilogy', whose second Volume - 'Agnes Sorel, Mistress of Beauty' - is available now on Amazon and in all good bookshops. On Twitter, She is @PMK_Books
For more information on Princess Michael, her lectures and essays, and The Anjoy Trilogy, see www.princessmichael.com