Eight hundred years later, Magna Carta is worth celebrating

Posted on June 15, 2015 in Equality History

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – Eight centuries after King John was forced to accept it, Magna Carta is still well worth celebrating.
Jun 15 2015.   Editorial

Magna Carta is having a big moment. Monday marks the 800th anniversary of the day that Bad King John, a monarch so wretched that no successor ever took his name, gave in to a revolt by a gaggle of barons and affixed his royal seal to the Great Charter. Thenceforth, goes the legend, the rights of Englishmen were guaranteed in law.

Of course, it’s nowhere near as simple as that. But the legend is powerful – so powerful that the birthday of Magna Carta is being feted across much of the world. In Ottawa, a copy dating from 1300 is on display at the Canadian Museum of History until July 26. And the cornerstone of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg contains a stone from the ruins of a church in Runnymede, the village by the Thames where John gave the charter his grudging nod so long ago.

The document – about 3,550 words in the original Latin – has had a tumultuous history. King John almost immediately repudiated it, and had the Pope of the day declare it null and void. But it was revived and revised, and by 1300 had been translated into English and was widely known.

In the centuries that followed, though, it was mostly ignored. Monarchs kept on acting badly, no matter what was written down. It was only in the mid-17th century that Parliament seized on the charter in its struggle with the despotic Stuarts. American revolutionaries fed the legend 100 years later by citing Magna Carta in their fight against arbitrary rule from London.

The document itself is very much of its time. There’s a lot of arcane stuff about old weights and measures and removing fish weirs on the Thames, as well as a couple of awkward clauses about how to deal with debts to Jewish moneylenders.

But amongst all that are strikingly direct and modern-sounding assertions of basic rights. Paragraph 39 declares that “no free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way … except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” The next clause states bluntly: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

This is powerful stuff, and there’s much more affirming what has come to be known as the rule of law and the right of due process. Reading that, it’s no surprise that the document has been revived over and over, and why fighters in the cause of human rights from Benjamin Franklin to Nelson Mandela have quoted Magna Carta to bolster their case.

The history of the Great Charter is tangled and messy. It began as an assertion of rights by a few hundred noblemen, and has become a world-wide symbol of freedom for all.

But even that contains its own weighty lesson: that rights are not simply affirmed once and for all, but must be fought for constantly over the centuries. Eight hundred years on, Magna Carta is still well worth celebrating.

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