The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, sealed by King John at Runnymede on June 15, 1215, had more to do about the gripes of a group of peeved and over-taxed English barons than the democratic rights of commoners. In fact, when King John put his seal to the Magna Carta, no one knew what the word “parliament” meant, as its first recorded use dates to 1236.
But over the centuries, the charter became more than its original intent. It is now revered as a symbol against oppression and the importance of human rights. At Runnymede, a memorial erected by the American Bar Association contains the phrase, “To commemorate Magna Carta symbol of freedom under the law.”
The copy of the original Magna Carta, handwritten in Latin in 1217, was in Manitoba in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit on July 3. Starting on July 12, the historic document will be made available for public viewing, from noon to 4 p.m., seven days a week, for three months, in Room 200 of the Legislative Building.
The Magna Carta will be on display alongside a stone from Runnymede, the site of the where King John put the royal seal to the original document. The stone was unveiled by the Queen during a special cornerstone ceremony at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which will become the only national museum outside the Ottawa-Hull Region. Although the stone, now embedded in a Tyndall stone panel, was not laid in situ as the museum’s cornerstone, it will eventually be placed within the museum’s entrance as a symbolic commemoration of the implication of the project.
In keeping with the museum’s point of addressing the issue of human rights in a Canadian as well as a global context, the stone is the only such artifact existing in the world to be found outside Runnymede. The government of Great Britain granted a special dispensation for the stone, which was part of a ruined 12th-century church, to be moved to Canada from the national park in the county of Surrey in England. The stone was the Queen’s idea and was personally selected by her, which emphasizes the importance she places on the new human rights museum. Having been given royal approval — the Queen’s insignia is also on the front of the cornerstone’s glass cover — is a great boon for the museum and for Winnipeg.
“This is only the second time in its lengthy existence this copy (of the Magna Carta) has left England and we are very proud it will have a temporary home here for Manitobans and all those who visit our province to see,” said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger. “This is a very significant record of human history ...”
The significance of the Magna Carta is that concessions were made to “free men,” which included free tenants, especially the tenant-in-chiefs — the barons who wanted the same rights conceded to other “free men” through earlier reforms. Henry I had undermined the baron’s authority by allowing their vassals to appeal punishments imposed on them by the barons to the assizes where the king’s appointed justices presided. On the other hand, the barons had no such privilege of appeal. In effect, the king and his justices were the sole and final arbitrator of any baron’s grievances. The king was above the law and technically owned all the land received by each baron who were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the king before receiving property. To maintain their titles and holdings, the barons had no recourse but to obey anything the king or his court ordered.
What the Magna Carta brought into being was the concept of “the commune of the whole land” that was to be perpetually respected by the monarchy. The most important clause of the Magna Carta is the one in which the king made the commitment that: “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by lawful judgement of his peers or by law of the land.”
According to an article in the book, The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England, by George Garnett: “This clause attempted to ensure that henceforth the king would act towards all free men, including barons, in accordance with regular procedures, as other lords had already in effect been forced by the king to do towards their vassals ..., henceforth they (barons) could be disciplined only by lawful judgement of (their) peers in the lord king’s court.”
The barons had invented the concept of “the commune of the whole land” in order that the king abide with the concessions made in the Magna Carta, which initiated the process of a common law. It was this common law that was transported across the seas to such far-flung nations as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and the United States.
But the Magna Carta was no guarantee that King John would respect the newly-won rights. John eventually secured a papal decree from Pope Innocent III, which annulled the Magna Carta on the grounds that the king had been coerced into accepting its terms and that the terms impaired John’s rights and dignity.
There was some truth to this assertion, as John’s loss of all English holdings in France (he was an inept military commander), and raising heavy taxes on the barons to fight the wars with the French, weakened his power. The barons realized it was an opportune time to wrangle concessions out of the king through the Magna Carta.
Peeved by John’s actions in having the pope annul the Magna Carta, the barons began an armed revolt. In the meantime, John died in 1216, and the rebellion only ended when his son and heir to the throne, nine-year-old Henry III, then under the guidance of his regents, was forced to concede that it was impossible to withdraw or suppress the liberties granted to all free men into perpetuity. The Magna Carta again became the law of the land in 1217.
The Magna Carta didn’t end strife between the barons and the monarchy, but it was the basis of future concessions, including the establishment of a parliament.
What began with a bunch of peeved barons ended up becoming a symbol against oppression, constitutional power of parliament over the monarchy, and freedom under the law. Across the world, the Magna Carta is held up by democracies as the fundamental basis for the law of the land. In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, signed by the Queen in 1982, is a descendant of the Magna Carta.