The tour ‘bus pulls up with a hiss of brakes next to a nondescript, but pleasant, meadow alongside the Thames in Surrey.
“This is where the barons forced wicked King John to agree to Magna Carta,” says the guide.
“Oh? When did that happen?”
“Dang! Will you look at that, Marcia – we missed it by 30 minutes.”
Despite that old schoolboy joke, many people (including Prime Minister David Cameron when interviewed on US television in 2012) do not know what Magna Carta means (it means ‘Great Charter’). Nor do many of us fully understand what it was, or its significance. Magna Carta was an attempt to limit the authority of the medieval monarch, transferring some of the Crown’s power to the barons. It was agreed at Runnymede (“the meadow at the island where councils are held”) on 15th June 1215, King John put his seal to it on 19th June, it was revised three times during the reign of his son, Henry III and confirmed by his grandson, Edward I, in 1297. Many say that Magna Carta helped lay the foundations for modern freedoms and liberal democracy; some grant it a semi-mystical status far beyond the wildest dreams of its authors. Most of its provisions dealt with contemporary grievances and issues, such as fish-traps on the Thames and the treatment of Welsh prisoners. One thing’s for sure: no medieval peasant opened his morning paper on 16th June and whooped with joy at the news of newly-won liberty and security under the law. Yet, 800 years later Magna Carta was celebrated all over the western world and a ceremony to mark the centenary was held at Runnymede, attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, other members of the Royal Family, representatives of HM Government and foreign dignitaries. On this occasion, David Cameron, far from not knowing what it meant, claimed that Magna Carta had changed the world. So why all the fuss?
King John doesn’t top too many polls of popular monarchs. He is usually portrayed as scheming, overtaxing and incompetent; a cruel, untrustworthy, tyrant, prone to uncontrollable tantrums, who played fast and loose with other men’s wives (and daughters) and was, to cap it all, anti-church. In fairness, many of the complaints against the monarchy pre-dated John’s reign. History is often written by winners and I can’t help thinking that some of the bad publicity came from John’s enemies, as well as later writers of the tales of Robin Hood – particularly those based in Hollywood.
Nicknamed ‘Lackland’ by his father, Henry II (because he had no land to give his youngest, fifth, son), John treacherously tried to seize the throne from his brother, Richard I (‘the Lionheart’) and has been blamed for the brutal murder of Arthur of Brittany, his nephew and rival for the throne. He inherited lands that stretched from the Pyrenees to the Scottish border, but spectacularly managed to lose most of those in what we know as western France, with the notable exception of Gascony. He had a dramatic falling-out with the Pope, Innocent III, over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which resulted in a papal interdict, suspending all church services in England; John seized church revenues and lands and was subsequently excommunicated. Eventually, concerned about the threat of French invasion and his own plans to re-take Normandy, John gave in. He accepted the appointment of the Pope’s nominee, Stephen Langton, as Archbishop of Canterbury and, in a clever twist, made England a fief of the papacy – obliging the Pope to protect it. Meanwhile, John had campaigned successfully and expensively in Wales and Scotland. But his wars in France, funded by church revenues and heavy taxation – including ‘scutage’ (a payment barons owed the king in lieu of military service) – ended in failure. On 27th July 1214, John’s northern allies were decisively beaten by the French at the Battle of Bouvines in Flanders.
Back in England, the barons were hacked off. When attempts to discuss their grievances failed, they rebelled. In May 1215, they captured the Tower of London and, as the historian David Starkey coyly remarked, “Had King John by the privates.” The King was forced to negotiate and, on 10th June the two sides met at Runnymede, neutral territory between London and the royal fortress at Windsor. Runnymede was possibly a traditional meeting place, though some versions of the history claim the talks took place in a waterlogged meadow and others on Magna Carta Island in the river itself; both were ideal, since neither was suitable for any armed struggle. Incidentally, if you’ve some spare change, the island was on the market in 2014 for £3.95 million.
The barons listed 48 demands, which subsequently morphed into the document we know as Magna Carta. It was, essentially, a peace treaty and, as we have said, primarily dealt with contemporary matters. There are 63 clauses, the most significant of which is No 39, which states:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, 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 judgement 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.”
This is pretty uncompromising stuff – it is one of three clauses that remain part of English Law and, really, the one that everyone gets most excited about. In 1215, of course, there were not that many free men (or women) in England. But this clause unequivocally says that the law is not subject to the whim of one person and that all of us are equal and accountable under it. The charter also includes an early version of ‘no taxation without representation’ and establishes a principle that certain rights could be settled by a council of 25 barons – though it did not establish taxation by consent, or a parliament.
John, claiming that he only agreed to Magna Carta under duress (which is true), promptly asked his new chum, the Pope, to annul it. Innocent not only did so, but also condemned it on behalf of Almighty God (etc) and claimed the charter was illegal and unjust. However, Pandora’s Box had been opened; rather like an election pledge, too many people knew about Magna Carta to forget about it. One consequence of John’s reaction, though, was that the barons invited Louis of France to invade England – which he happily did in May 1216. John became a fugitive, famously losing the Crown Jewels in the Wash, in East Anglia (prompting another schoolboy joke: “Well, then he should change his laundry.”). Shortly after this, the beleaguered king died of dysentery (or from eating too many peaches) in Newark Castle.
It is the legacy of Magna Carta that we celebrate. It informed much of what came later, including the Bill of Rights of 1689, the Constitution of the United States of America and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Settlers from these islands drew upon their roots, including the right to justice and a fair trial. Many see parallels between Magna Carta and America’s Declaration of Independence in July 1776 - resistance against a high-taxing tyrant. Starkey notes that the Great Charter has been cited 400 times in the US Supreme Court since 1790, including when it decreed that prisoners in Guantanamo Bay should be freed. A copy of the 1297 version sits next to the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution in the National Archives in Washington DC. A further copy of the 1297 version resides in Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra. Of the 13 copies of the original 1215 version, four survive: two are normally held in the British Library and the others in the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury.
Back to Runnymede: blink, and you’ll miss it; there was nothing to mark the occasion until 1957, when a memorial commissioned by the American Bar Association was built. It is in the custody of the Magna Carta Trust under the chairmanship of the Master of the Rolls, the head of civil justice in England and Wales. The memorial is inscribed “To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under the law” and it is surrounded by English oak trees. Unveiled on 15th June 2015 by Prince William is a new memorial, a sculpture by Hew Locke called ‘The Jurors’, consisting of 12 bronze chairs, each with a story to tell, around an invisible table.
Runnymede is just off the M25, on a straight stretch of the A308 between Egham and Old Windsor. Or you could hire a boat. The riverside scenery is agreeable, with abundant wildflowers and only the ghosts of medieval nobility. Stop and thank King John and his barons for their unwitting contribution to the 21st century; while you’re about it, take a picnic.