by Phyllis Irene Radford
Magna Carta: 800 years and counting
Imagine my surprise several years ago when a noted politician who should really learn to keep her mouth shut, announced that the U.S. Constitution wasn’t good enough, we needed to go back to the Magna Carta!
Um… had she actually read the document? I had. I used it for the basis of my 2nd Merlin’s Descendants book Guardian of the Trust and included a copy in the back of my historical fantasy.
That prompted me to write a non fiction book Magna Bloody Carta, A Turning Point in Democracy. Both books are on sale here at Bookview Café and other major retailers of e-books for $0.99 this month to mark the 800th anniversary of this amazing document.
Britain is embracing the anniversary flamboyantly with everything from T-shirts to mugs to parchment copies. I really wanted one of the rubber duckies but they seem to have sold out.
So I’ll set the historical stage for you:
June 14, 1215 King John of England met with his barons and senior clergy, in a meadow outside of Windsor called Runnymede. On that day they signed a document that became known as the Magna Carta.
At the time, the document was meant to be a peace treaty between the king and the barons. Not a rights of man. Not a singular constitution. And not the end of the civil war. Several barons refused to sign the document because it did not include provisions to remove John from the throne or his head from his body. The war raged on for another year until John died of dysentery and the crown passed to his young son Henry III.
Over the next few centuries clauses were eliminated and put back, monarchs reaffirmed it and barons sought to better it as times changed.
Many of the clauses of the document deal with inheritance—a constant source of abuse by both monarch and barons. Other abuses were also addressed like out of control forestry laws and right of way on rivers used for major transportation. Weights and measures were standardized, as were taxes, and the rights of Jews and foreign merchants. A rudimentary parliament and judicial system also blossomed in being.
For the first time in western civilization, the king became subject to his own laws. That was the most alarming and the most forward-looking clause, unique in Europe. This idea was so progressive, Pope Innocent III and Honorius III negated the entire treaty because of it. If a crowned monarch was now subject to civil law, then the next step might very well mean the popes must also abide by civil as well as divine law.
For such a simple, and misunderstood document, it stands as a foundation for modern government in Europe and North America. But it is a foundation only, not a substitute for what we have built from it.