Sunday, 15 June 2014

Magna Carta

Morning everyone! 
It's June 15, Father's Day here in the UK, but also - as I was reminded this morning by Dan Snow on Twitter - the 799th anniversary of King John's seal being affixed to Magna Carta in a field in Surrey. I'm not going to do a massive blog on this, although the subject is perhaps worthy of such, but instead wanted to share with you all some observations. 

The document was drawn up to by the barons as an attempt to curtail the power of the king, who had been running somewhat amok, playing fast and loose with his position as an absolute monarch. Magna Carta is frequently held as an example of triumph of the people, democracy in action, and generally a victory for civil liberty everywhere, when in fact it is more an affirmation of the feudal rights of the nobility and their power over their lands. 

Nevertheless, Magna Carta is an immensely important document, not only for showing us what the Angevin nobility thought was an important part of their role, but also for the power it gave them through the so-called "Clause 61". In medieval England - and elsewhere - a practice similar to forfeit was common, called distraint. Should a tenant be unable (or unwilling) to pay his rent, for example, his landlord could quite legally seize all of the tenant's assets and sell them to cover his costs. Clause 61 applied distraint to the monarch for the first time ever, and was quite explosive. 

Of the original clauses, three still remain as statute law in Britain today. First, the freedom of the English Church. Second, the "ancient liberties" of the City of London are to be upheld. And finally, the right of any man to due process - that is, essentially, trial by jury. John had been guilty of ravaging the monasteries and churches for money, and imprisoning people arbitrarily for years, so these laws severely curtailed his power in these respects. 

John, notoriously distrusting of everyone, affixed his seal to Magna Carta very much under duress, but almost immediately ignored its precepts and had the Pope legally revoke him from his oath to uphold it. The barons had pretty much expected this, anyway, and set about John's deposition almost immediately. They sought to replace him with the dauphin of France, Louis (later Louis VIII 'the Lion'), who landed at Thanet in Kent in 1216 amid the uproar of the First Barons War. Louis was actually proclaimed King at St Paul's Cathedral, but John's sudden death lost his entire support to John's heir, Henry III. William Marshal, acting as regent, led the opposition to Louis, who was defeated at Lincoln in May 1217. He was eventually paid off, and left the country under the promise never to invade again. He didn't have to wait long until he inherited the throne of France, anyway. 

Hugh de Wells, Bishop of Lincoln, was one of the many witnesses to the document. It is at Lincoln Cathedral that one of the four surviving copies of Magna Carta is displayed today: