SAN JOSE, June 15, 2016 – In the history of the world, strong foundations have been established for the advancement of freedom, and the Magna Carta stands as one of those cornerstones.
On June 15, 1215, King John of England approved of the provisions of the Great Charter in an attempt to attain peace between rebellious barons and loyalist supporters during a time that seemed to be near the brink of an English Civil War. Prior to this confrontation between the king and the nobles, it was unprecedented that an omnipotent authority, or ruler, would set down in writing concessions to a rebellious nobility, nor concede that a monarch was not above the law. The document known as the Magna Carta changed this, and bound the king and his chief vassals to the law, and it laid the foundation for the development of the British Parliament.
It may be a bit of exaggeration that the Magna Carta served as the eventual basis for American contemporary constitutional liberties, or the prelude for “no taxation without representation.” Nevertheless, despite the limitations of the Great Charter, it does remain one of the very early turning points, or “landmarks” in the development of human freedom. The law within the historic document serves as a foundation for modern liberties in the general sense that for the first time, royal authority was restrained, and future generations viewed it as a symbol of the triumph of law over the personal power of some monarch.
Initially, the charter was a crude legal agreement written out because King John and the rebellious nobles who challenged his authority did not trust each other. The eventual and final confrontation between the two sides took place at Runnymeade, about twenty miles southwest of London, and represented the culmination of a long process of negotiations after open rebellion from barons opposed to the king and those nobles who remained loyal to the Crown.
Following many years of struggle and great expense to regain lost ancestral lands in France, King John returned to England after his defeat by King Philip II in 1214. Through the years of struggle, the king had taxed his nobles extensively, and many saw it as a waste, and had the audacity to organize in an attempt to resist his rule. Basically the nobles were united in their hatred of the king, but John tried to defuse the tension and had organized a council to deal with potential reforms, which was held in London in January of 1215.
It appears that in a devious kingly manner, he was trying everything to maintain his power and to retain the financial support of the nobles. When the council failed, both John and the rebels appealed to Pope Innocent III. The king had previously declared himself to be a papal vassal in 1213, which would have provided him with legal and moral reinforcement from the pope. And eventually hoping to gain even more political protection under the Roman Church, John also took an oath to become a crusader. Yet, the English king was also simultaneously attempting to raise additional troops in the form of French mercenaries to fight the barons.
By May of that year, the rebellious barons had also organized militarily, and had renounced their feudal bonds to King John. They eventually took control of London as well as other towns. The king was willing to initiate peace talks, and this led to serious negotiations which placed the Church in the middle as the arbitrator, though Innocent III eventually came out in support of King John. Ultimately, from June 15th to June 23rd both factions would ride out each day from their respective opposing camps to the pasture at Runnymeade to reach acceptable terms for an agreement. Most of the broad terms of the charter had been outlined between the envoys by the time of the remarkable confrontation on June 15th of 1215.
Essentially, in later centuries, enthusiastic interpretations of the Magna Carta were used to justify a number limitations upon the power of the Crown that had not been imagined by the original 25 barons who stood up to King John at Runnymeade. Particularly, in the 17th century, there were several legal-minded reformers that provided interpretations of the Great Charter that claimed liberties for all English people. However, this is one only way of looking at this great turning point in history.
The Magna Carta has long been understood as a foothold for freedom, which it is; but, it can also be understood as a way a very wealthy and powerful group of aristocrats were able to manipulate a conciliatory ruler. In many ways, Magna Carta is a double-edged sword. The king was forced to swear a solemn oath to abide by the terms of the agreement, and the barons renewed their vows of fealty and loyalty to the king. It does seem like a win-win situation as each side got what it wanted. But though it can be viewed as a foundation for greater freedom for the nobility, it did not really address the common people – the serfs and slaves of the day.
One underlying foundation that was additionally created for future generations was that the establishment of the Magna Carta demonstrated that a very dedicated group of brave and wealthy aristocrats were able to dictate to the king what should be done to govern the nation and the common people. There is no doubt that wealth creates power, and the powerful King John had to yield to the combined interests of a group of rebellious nobles and their supporters that was dominated by England’s most powerful landowners. While it can be observed that the Great Charter created the foundation for freedom from a tyrannical monarch, it also opened the door for the wealthy and the powerful to take the place of the king.
From 1215 to 1775 is a period of 560 years, and during that time greater freedom was given to the English people, but in a limited and measured manner; yet, at some point the common folks in the colonies no longer felt that they were the recipients of the basic rights of Englishmen that had been established since June 15th in Runnymeade. In 1775, it was not the aristocracy that was challenging the king of England – it was the common people. These brave and brilliant men and women challenged the king not for financial relief (though detesting taxes was in the mix), they were willing to die for the right of self-government – the right to be free of a king, and free of the dictates of an aristocracy over the people.
From 1775 to 2016 is a period of 241 years, and during that time Americans have advanced the foundations of freedom established through the Magna Carta. But, Americans have advanced freedom well beyond the dreams of the signers of that charter. America still holds the dream of all people being free, yet now so many are confused about that dream – some because they are clueless, some because they don’t believe in it, and some because they are opposed to it. Yet, America still stands and will continue as long as the hope of freedom for all people still remains alive within the people. Today, more people should re-ignite the dream, or we may have to wait for another 300+ years for brave and brilliant men and women to free themselves from a tyranny that is taking root within the nation.