Magna Carta, Magnum Opus

Fresh off a happy American Invasion of England this past weekend, June 15th, 1215, Old King John granted a charter of liberties under threat of civil war, known as the Magna Carta. By declaring the sovereign to be subject to the rule of law and documenting the liberties held by “free men,” the Magna Carta would provide the foundation for individual rights in Anglo-American jurisprudence.

Turning to the the Norman conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror secured for himself and his immediate successors a position of unprecedented power. He was able to dominate not only the country but also the barons who had helped him win it and the ecclesiastics who served the English church. However, having been new on the scene, successors to William I were compelled to make concessions to the nobles and clergy in various charters to secure their loyalty, with ever more generous promises of good government in church and state.

There developed, in fact, through the 12th century a continuous tradition that the king’s coronation oath should be strengthened by written promises stamped with the king’s seal, not dissimilar from an American president’s inauguration. Although the volume of common law increased during that period, by the time of Henry II’s reign in 1189, no converse definition had been secured in regard to the financial liabilities of the baronage to the crown.

The baronage also had no definition of the rights of justice that they held over their own subjects. As Angevin administration became ever more firmly established with learned judges, able financiers, and trained clerks in its service, the baronage as a whole became ever more conscious of the weakness of its position in the face of the agents of the crown.

Compounding discontent among the nobility were tax increases during Richard I’s reign (1189–99), which resulted from his Crusade, his ransom, and his war with France. John (generally depicted as an evil worm in technicolor) was confronted with those myriad challenges upon his rise to the throne in 1199. His position, already precarious, was made even weaker because of the rival claim of his nephew Arthur of Brittany and the determination of Philip II of France to end the English hold on Normandy.

Unlike his predecessors, John did not issue a general charter to his barons at the beginning of his reign. As early as 1201, however, the earls were refusing to cross the English Channel in the king’s service unless he first promised them “their rights.” In 1205, in the face of a threat of invasion from France, the king was compelled to swear that he would preserve the rights of the kingdom unharmed. After the loss of Normandy in 1204, John was forced to rely on English resources alone, and the crown began to feel a new urgency in the matter of revenue collection; his position became ever more perilous with his excommunication in 1209, depriving him of some of his ablest administrators.

By June 15, 1215, the document known as the Articles of the Barons was at last agreed upon, and to it the king’s great seal was set. It became the text from which the draft of the charter was hammered out in the discussions at Runnymede, beside the River Thames, between Windsor and Staines, and the final version of the Magna Carta was accepted by the king and the barons on June 19. The charter was a compromise, but it also contained important clauses designed to bring about reforms in judicial and local administration.

Subsequently, stronger reissues and “box sets” were released to respond to internal and external threats to John and his successors; by the time of the 1225 reissue, the Magna Carta had become more than a sober statement of the common law. It was a symbol in the battle against oppression, it had been read so many times in shire courts throughout the land that memorable phrases would be invoked in later documents, and whenever liberty seemed in danger, men spoke of the charter as their defense.

The influence of the Magna Carta in England, and, later, in her colonies, had come not from the detailed expression of the feudal relationship between lord and subject but from the general clauses in which every generation could see its own protection and desire for justice and fairness. Its intentions and principles run through the Mayflower Pact, the Federalist Papers, Articles of Confederation, US Constitution, federal and state penal codes, the United Nations Charter, and other instruments of governance, reanimating in the US this past January 20, 2021.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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