Q. I have been hearing snippets of news lately about the Magna Carta. What is it and why is it important?
A. The Magna Carta of 1215 is considered by some to be the most important legal document created in Western Civilization during the last millennium. Historically, it was a peace treaty between King John of England and his disgruntled Barons, who were unhappy with the King’s abuse of power and excessive taxation. It was, in fact, 800 years ago this month, that King John of England affixed his Great Seal to a piece of parchment that is said to have been written by the Archbishop of Canterbury to resolve a threatened civil war between the King and his Barons.
The Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) is considered to be one of the first legal documents wherein the power of the sovereign was limited by the rule of law. Until then, a word from the King could result in the seizure of a man’s lands or the loss of his head. It is comprised of 63 clauses addressing specific grievances of the Barons. Buried within them are a number of provisions which limited the absolute power of the King and influenced the development of the rule of law in England and elsewhere through the present day. Most famous is clause 39 which reads as follows:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice”
Sound familiar? The founders of our country were inspired by the principles first enunciated in the Magna Carta, and we find echoes of its influence in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and our own Constitution.
Historically, the Magna Carta did not long maintain the peace between King John and his Barons. Yet some of the fundamental concepts first enunciated in that Great Charter, and its subsequent iterations signed by other monarchs, live on today in the basic laws of England, France, the United States, and much of Western Civilization. Indeed, some trace the origins of democracy back to the events of that fateful day, June 15, 2015, at Runnymede, England.
I, personally, have a replica of the Magna Carta hanging in my office, and I periodically gaze upon it as a reminder of the long road from the time of absolute power vested in a king to a democracy based upon the rule of law and the value of individual freedoms.