On June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, the Earls and Barons of England forced King John to affix his seal to “one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy,” Magna Carta or the Great Charter. The Right Honourable The Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls from 1962 to 1982, described Magna Carta as the “greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared in his 1941 Inaugural Address, “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history … It was written in Magna Carta.”
Stirring stuff. And complete rubbish. There is nothing remotely approaching democracy or the freedom of the individual in Magna Carta. But I do appreciate Roosevelt’s correct omission of the definite article. Like hoi poloi, Magna Carta is not preceded by “The.” And that’s the only thing Magna Carta and hoi poloi have in common. The masses, the public, the multitude, the rank and file, what we now call the middle class were never meant to be the beneficiaries of the “rights” guaranteed by Magna Carta. The titled, landed gentry were – you know, today’s one percent. Magna Carta is no more a declaration of the common man’s rights than is the whining privately-educated schoolboy’s (like me) complaint that the head prefect has more privileges than the lower prefects. Magna Carta was class-warfare among the elite.
Following all the greetings, a listing of the endless titles held by John, supplications to God and his servants on earth, references to this constable and that seneschal, we have: “To All Free Men Of Our kingdom…” Sounds good (unless you happen to be a woman or not a free man). To be clear, the free men to be protected by Magna Carta were in fact a tiny minority of the English population at the time – titled men who owned property. Magna Carta was designed to do nothing more than codify the feudal system that already protected the rights and property of the small number of powerful families that, through good fortune or violence or both, happened to sit atop the rigid feudal system. Magna Carta didn’t advance democracy; it retarded democracy. It legislated the status quo that kept the vast majority of Englishmen and women enslaved and the powerful in power.
Article 6 of this to-be-much-revered document prohibits heirs of any earl or baron from marrying someone of a lower social standing. But, to be fair, Article 7 is kind enough to allow a widow to remain in her husband’s house for 40 days after his death.
Articles 10 and 11 liberate Jews from the burden of collecting debts from the estates of people who die owing them money.
Article 21 stipulates that earls and barons will be fined only by their peers. Now we know why “peers” has come to mean both one thing and its opposite (like “cleave”): our superiors and our equals – a Peer of the Realm – a jury of his peers.
Articles 38, 39 and 40 are very nice and are the three remnants of Magna Carta that get American lawyers all a-twitter and falling all over themselves in fawning adulation. Article 38 describes the corpus delicti rule; Article 39 deals with due process; Article 40 tells us that justice will not be denied, delayed or sold. All of which, we have the Romans to thank for. And the Romans, for all their faults, at least applied these principles in all cases, not just for those out of society’s top drawer. Just like today!
There are lots of fascinating forest rights to read about in Magna Carta depending on whether you’re reading the original version (you’re not, it doesn’t exist), or Henry III’s 1216 version, or the 1217 version, or the 1225 version, or even Edward I’s 1297 version. In any event, I’m sure the common man of 1215 was much relieved to know that his overlord could still hunt the land on which he lived – unlike yon afore-mentioned common man who would be branded a poacher, forced to admit to his wrong-doing with no “credible witnesses to the truth of it” (Article 38), and be denied the right to due process and a trial, because those rights belong only to his master.
So happy 800th birthday, MC, you’re not that important. I do, however, look forward, in five years’ time, to celebrating the 700th anniversary of an inspired, inspiring and relevant document that truly champions freedom, Jefferson’s inspiration, and the battle-cry of at least one modern country’s desire and destiny of Independence still: The Declaration of Arbroath.