by Albert Perez
Exclusive to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
For years I was under the impression that the Magna Carta was forced on King John Lackland at sword point by his English barons, as in, they confronted him at Runnymede with the Magna Cartaalready written out and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Events are more complicated.
Background: John’s immediate predecessors to the throne of England were Henry II and Richard Couer de Lion. Henry II (played by Peter O’ Toole in Becket and The Lion in Winter) was brilliant, competent, ambitious, and peripatetic. He started the codification of the English Common Law and dang near conquered France, crossing regularly between France and England until he died running from his rebel son Richard. Richard became King of England and spent a grand total of 6 months out of a ten-year reign there. He died trying to conquer French territory.
The English nobility had become accustomed during this time to pretty much doing as they wanted without Royal interference, except when the genius King Henry was on the island, which was still a time of prosperity and order.
John was not as good a soldier as Richard. He was not as astute a politician as Henry nor his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, and he had none of their charisma. The result was that by 1214 he had become a vassal of the Pope, lost most of his holdings in France, done a number on the English economy financing unsuccessful efforts to regain said holdings, violated what his barons considered their rights and privileges, and failed to win wars on the Continent which would have provided his barons with land and loot that would have made much of his behavior acceptable.
The Barons rebelled. John agreed to negotiate and meet with his Barons at Runnymede to sign the agreement. The final draft was prepared by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and represented a compromise by John and his Barons. John repudiated it almost immediately, claiming he couldn’t sign it as he was the Pope’s vassal. He needn’t have bothered, as the pope annulled it and the Barons violated their obligations under it. The Rebellion went hot again and ideas from the first Magna Carta turned up in the charter of 1216 (made between the Barons and John’s son’s Regency), 1226 when Henry (John’s son and heir) suppressed a rebellion by his Barons financed by the King of France, and various charters through the 13th Century until a final version was made part of English statutory law by Edward I and renewed regularly through the Medieval Era until Parliament gained control of the legislative function.
So, why do we make a big fuss over a piece of parchment that was variously repudiated, annulled, blown off, and at best can be said to be the inspiration for future pieces of parchment? Well, it did in fact inspire those future pieces of parchment and paper. It set a precedent that the legitimacy of the King’s (Queen’s) authority derived from respecting and protecting the rights of his people (originally this meant his Barons, but time expanded the definition.
Secondly, it established certain rights in its verbiage, It established that the people could only be taxed by their elected representatives. Secondly, it established the right to speedy trial by a jury of peers. The Barons kept the rights of justice over their peasants, so this only applied to the nobility, but it was a start.
Less directly, it militated towards rule by consent of the govern by banning the king from bringing mercenary troops to England. This put military power in the hands of the Barons, which meant the King needed their consent to rule and to enforce his rule. Also, it guaranteed that the Church, not the King, would appoint bishops, and other higher prelates. This would be a seed to the idea of separation of Church and State.
By 1214 England’s Barons got tired of King John taxing them and interfering with their Baronial privileges. This led to a struggle that King and Nobility tried to resolve at Runnymede by signing a compromise. They failed, leading to civil war and French interference in English politics when the French King financed the rebelling Barons. However, Magna Carta represented such a powerful idea, that the power of the throne/state derives from respecting and protecting the rights, the privileges and immunities, of the people under their authority, that we can say it ultimately succeeded.
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