Magna Carta Presentation
Randall and Barbara Bolles attended the Annual Meeting of the Kansas-Missouri
Society of Magna Charta Dames and Barons on October 25, 2014.
Robert "Randall" Bolles #2886,
Kansas City MO, is a Baron of Magna Charta, and his daughter, Kelly Bolles
Butler #3298 is Randall's Legacy Member, 'Dame of Magna Charta'. Bolles
Family Association members who were members of the Magna Charta Society include
the late Francis Robert Bolles #3152 of Binghamton NY, the late George C.
Campbell #2081 of New Milford PA and the late Edith L. Bolles Viets Syring Dixon
#1435 of Spokane WA. If anyone knows of other people, please let us
The guest speaker was Dr. Kimberly Schutte, PhD, Academic Consultant, Historian,
at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Her subject was, “Magna Carta
at Nearly 800”. Dr. Schutte is sharing her wealth of information for the
benefit of BFA members.
Editor's Note: The different spelling of "Magna Carta"
and "Magna Charta" is not an error.
Magna Carta at Nearly 800
By: Dr. Kimberly
Nearly 800 years after
King John signed the great charter at Runnymede, the Magna Carta remains one of
the touchstones of modern democracy. This, despite the fact, that the majority
of the document refers to grievances that are very specific to their place in
feudal society. The original document has something of a random quality to
it—clearly indicating the work of many hands working in haste.
The Barons had good
cause to fear and distrust John, a King whose mental health is certainly in
question. He had starved a woman and her son to death, murdered his nephew, and
hanged Welsh hostages (the charter has 2 clauses that deal with the proper
treatment of the Welsh).
From its outset John’s
reign had been marked by discord both internally with his Barons and externally,
most notably – though not exclusively – with Pope Innocent III and King Philip
II Augustus of France. When John inherited the throne from his brother Richard
the Lionheart in 1199, he inherited more than just England, he also gained
substantial portions of France. When John came to the throne, he did not have
the best claim – in front of him, under some interpretations, was his nephew
Arthur of Brittany. John had his nephew, who was only 12 in 1199, imprisoned and
eventually murdered in 1203. This shocked many of his Barons. In 1200, John
decided to marry a French noblewoman (well, girl she was somewhere in the
neighborhood of 9 – 15 years old) without the permission of the French King.
This gave King Philip the legal right to seize John’s sizeable properties in
France, prompting war – a war in which John performed very badly – earning him
the nickname, Softsword. In 1209 John was excommunicated in the course of a
power struggle with the Pope over the appointment of the Archbishop of
Canterbury, eventually the Pope placed all of England under interdict in an
attempt to bend John to his will. In order to get the Interdict lifted, John had
to cede England to the pope and take it back as a fief, thus making him – and
the rest of the English landowners – vassals of the Pope, a situation that his
Barons saw as shameful.
John’s incompetent and
duplicitous dealing with these challenges outraged many of the barons, prompting
them to launch a civil war in 1213. They chose as their leader Robert FitzWalter,
who called himself "Marshal of the Host of God and the Holy Church," thus
transforming this from a political fight to a religious war. The choice of
FitzWalter illustrates the fact that the rebels were in the minority among the
nobility of England, most chose to remain neutral. FitzWalter was an unsavory
character who had a long history of violence and nursed a number of personal
grudges against the King, not the most honorable of the English barons but the
best that the rebels had.
As the Barons got the
better of John and seized control of London, it was clear to the beleaguered
King that he needed to do a deal if he wanted to retain his throne. He and 25 of
the rebels met at Runnymede Meadow on June 15, 1215 for a tough negotiation,
that was ultimately sealed, not signed.
The original charter
was a list of demands made upon the King, a format that did not suit John at
all. In order to try to pacify the King and bring a peaceful resolution, it was
recast to sound like a generous royal proclamation. Even so, John was not
enthusiastic and he delayed for four days before finally agreeing to the
document. Though he acquiesced, John never intended to abide by the terms of the
charter – which he saw as a threat to his god-given right to rule; he simply
wanted to regain control of his capital. The Magna Carta was nothing more than a
stalling technique, a bargaining chip.
Within three months of
agreeing, John was embroiled in renewed conflict with the Barons, the First
Baron’s War, with the Barons seeking to replace him on the throne with Prince
Louis of France [the future Louis VIII of France, son of Philip II Augustus].
John’s violation of the Charter did not surprise the Barons, in clauses 52 and
61 they had foreseen and provided for such a happenstance. By the terms of the
charter a committee of 25 barons would step in and exercise royal authority if
John failed to fulfill the terms and that is exactly what they did. John gained
some unexpected support in his violation of the document from the Pope. Innocent
III saw the Magna Carta as a denial of divine right and his own right to rule
over Europe (Innocent envisioned an Empire of Europe with himself at the helm)
and he wasted no time in denouncing it and the Barons who had imposed it in
strong terms. With this support, the tide of the battle shifted and John had the
upper hand, regaining control of most of England. By November 1215, London was
within his grasp. But once again, John blew it: instead of striking at the
heavily fortified capital, he harried the lands of the rebels, simply making
them angry and giving Louis time to get an army together and land in England on
May 22, 1216. John decided not to fight but withdrew instead, disgusting the
Barons who had supported him and causing fully two-thirds of the English Barony
to throw their support to Louis. John was pushed northward and was on the brink
of losing it all. But he contracted dysentery and died.
If John had not died
on Oct. 18, 1216 leaving as his heir his nine-year old son Henry, the Magna
Carta might well have been consigned to the large pile of "well that was a nice
idea" of history. But the reign of a child King requires a regent and a regency
is always a weak period – so to maintain peace and hope to keep young Henry III
on the throne, the regent accepted an amended Magna Carta in 1217 – it was at
this point that it received the name Magna Carta. A further revision was
accepted in 1225 and that version was widely circulated throughout the land. It
was read aloud at county courts. During his long, and very troubled reign, Henry
swore to uphold the Magna Carta six more times before his death in 1272.
Magna Carta steadily
became the foundation of English law and the rights of Englishmen. In 1265 it
was determined that the Magna Carta would be read aloud twice a year so that no
Englishman could ever say that he did not know what it contained. Following the
death of Henry III, the great charter was confirmed 37 times by subsequent
rulers, the last in 1461 by the saintly, but mad, Henry VI. Every book of
statutes that was compiled always had the Magna Carta as its initial entry.
Though comprised of 63
clauses – all of which must have been terribly important to the Barons holding
John’s nose to the grindstone – it is clauses 39 and 40 that have come down as
the most important: "No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised
(dispossessed) or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or
send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of
the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or
justice." In other words, due process of law – something that is at the center
of the American system as well.
Despite the importance
that this document would later take on, both in the UK and the US, it is
important to remember that it was in no way a clarion call for the rights of all
people at the time that it was written. It had absolutely no impact whatsoever
on the lives of 99% (or more of the people). It was a peace treaty between the
King and the group of Barons, much of it is taken up with things that seem very
trivial, eg. the removal of fish weirs from the Thames and regulating the
measure of wine throughout the country. There are things missing from the
document that we would expect to be there if it were intended to be a universal
statement of rights. For example: there is no clear definition of citizenry, of
who it is concerned with. Generally definitions of citizenship are based on 2
principals: blood lineage and place of birth, and – especially for the US –
consent between an individual and the state. The document makes vague reference
to descent/bloodlines ("heirs in perpetuity"), consent ("freely and out of our
good will have given and granted to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors,
earls, barons, and all of our realm these liberties") and place ("realm"), but
it contains essentially no specifics about what exactly a freeman was and how he
might be identified under the law. It took later commentators to create the
definition of citizenship and then to extend the protections of the Magna Carta
to those citizens. In other words, it was what later generations made of the
document that brought us to this conversation today.
As the Charter was
reissued over the years, new understandings emerged. In 1354, Parliament decreed
that the clause about "no free man" which actually served to exclude the vast
majority of the population from its protections, included far more people, and
the language was shifted to "No man of whatever estate or condition." A statute
passed in 1369 stated that no law was valid if it conflicted with Magna Carta.
Four hundred years
after the signing of Magna Carta, England had developed a vibrant collection of
judicial decisions collectively known as common law, essentially law by
precedent. But the precedent of the limitation of royal power found in MC was
not something that rulers wanted to emphasize.
Interestingly, in his
1594 play "King John," Shakespeare makes no mention of Magna Carta. This is not
particularly surprising given the political situation of the time – Elizabeth
had been solidly on the throne for nearly 40 years and Englishmen were content
to give her a fairly free hand in exchange for the stability that she brought.
Parliament too, tended to allow the Tudors a free hand and so there was no talk
of the limitations in Magna Carta.
In 1603, James I, the
first Stuart King of England and a believer in divine right, came to the throne.
In his writings (though in his actions he showed a willingness to work with
limitations) he portrayed the unfettered power of monarchy. This troubled many
Englishmen and interest in the Magna Carta began to increase. The man who led
this charge was the great jurist, Edward Coke. Coke published an 11-volume
edition of important decisions in English common law giving high ratings to the
"Law of the Land" and "due process of law" both of which he attributed to Magna
Carta. Coke held the Magna Carta in high esteem, describing it as "such a fine
fellow that he will have no sovereign." Soon, the charter was seen once again as
a guarantee of the rights of all Englishmen; Coke described it as "the
foundation of all the fundamental laws of the realm," holding to the
romanticized view that it represented the liberties of English people that had
existed since time immemorial.
Coke’s vision of the
Magna Carta and its place in the common law crossed the Atlantic with English
lawyers as they came to America in the 17th C. English precedents
became American precedents and the American Founding Fathers were cognizant of
the Magna Carta when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution. Both the 1776 Maryland Constitution and the 1780 Massachusetts
Constitution contain the words "Law of the land," and Magna Carta is cited by
Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers: "It has been several times truly
remarked that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings
and their subjects, abridgements of prerogative in favor of privilege,
reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince. Such was Magna Charta
(spelled with the h), obtained by the barons, sword in hand, from King John." Of
course, "due process of law" is the basis of the 5th Amendment "No
person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of
law…" It came into the Constitution once again in 1868 with the passage of the
14th Amendment: "No state shall deprive any person of life, liberty,
or property without due process of law." It was referred to as the "Great
Charter of liberty."
On both sides of the
Atlantic, the spirit of MC was invoked: in 1770 the great British statesman
William Pitt the Elder referred to it as "the Bible of the English
constitution." In his 1941 Inaugural Address, FDR stated, "The democratic
aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. . . It was written in Magna
Carta." Following World War II when the United Nations adopted a Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the primary shapers of
that document state that she hoped that it would be "an international Magna Carta." After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the House of Commons passed
the John F. Kennedy Memorial Act, which deeded an acre of land at Runnymede to
the people of the US as a gift from the people of the UK. On that land, the
American Bar Association has installed a monument to MC with the inscription:
"To celebrate Magna Carta, foundation of the rule of law for ages past and for
the new millennium." The American Bar Association more recently has published a
book Magna Carta and the Rule of Law.
The Magna Carta has
become a cornerstone of American freedoms – it is not unusual for commentators
to trace our liberties to that document. One of our primary rights, one that
many scholars trace back to Magna Carta is habeas corpus, often linked to the
concept of due process. Habeas Corpus, literally "have the body" compels the
state to produce the accused for trial. In recent court cases (eg. Boumediene v.
Bush, 2008) the history of habeas corpus has been explicitly traced back to the
Magna Carta; in 2008 the Supreme Court stated that the Magna Carta "decreed that
no man would be imprisoned contrary to the law of the land." It is considered so
fundamental to our justice system that habeas corpus has been held to supersede
statutory law. This, and due process, have been particularly contentious issues
in our recent war on terror.
The High Court of
Australia, in September of this year issued a decision concerning the rights of
asylum-seekers was grounded in the habeas corpus language of the MC. That same
month Senator Paolo Aquino in the Philippines reintroduced the "Magna Carta of
the Poor Act" that seeks to ensure the five basic rights of every Filipino: the
right to food, employment, education, shelter, and basic health care.
When thinkers talk
about creating a more peaceful world in which basic human rights are respected,
it is not unusual for them to describe the document needed with the short hand,
Magna Carta, with the belief that everyone will know what that means – due
process under the law. Recently, the man credited with creating the World Wide
Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee stated that the "world needs an ‘internet Magna Carta.’
. . There have been lots of times that it [the freedom of the web] has been
abused, so now the Magna Carta is about saying. . I want a web where I’m not
spied on, where there’s no censorship."
The Magna Carta has
become to be seen almost as an religious icon and as a founding document in
America. In 2007, Ross Perot sold a 1297 version to David Rubenstein, co-founder
of the private-equity firm the Carlyle Group for $21.3 million. Rubenstein
practices what he calls patriotic philanthropy; in addition to the MC, he owns
an Emancipation Proclamation, and a Declaration of Independence. His copy is
currently on display at the National Archives in Washington DC.
As we approach the 800th
anniversary of the signing at Runnymede, there are a variety of commemorations
planned that speak to the continued importance of the Magna Carta. In 1215, at
Runnymede, multiple copies of the document were created, of which 4 survive each
by a different scribe but exactly alike in wording, and stamped with King John’s
seal. It was written in Latin, not surprising. They were written on single
sheets of parchment and run to about 4,000 words. They would have been sent to
various recipients, we don’t know how many copies were originally made. The four
surviving copies are at Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals, and 2 others are in
the British Library Collection in London. One of the British Library’s copies
was damaged in fire in 1731. All four of the 1215 copies will be displayed
side-by-side at the British Library on Feb. 3, 2015 and only 1,215 people
(chosen by free ballot) will have the opportunity to see them. As part of this,
renewed investigations of the copy that was damaged in 1731. Using ultraviolet
light, scientists were able to recover parts of the text that had been made
unreadable by the fire. After the British Library exhibition, the Lincoln and
Salisbury copies will return home to star in their own exhibitions. Salisbury
Cathedral was awarded a major grant to set up a new permanent exhibition for its
copy that includes interactive kiosks and a film.
The Anniversary has
caused people to reflect on the meaning of the MC. The Dean of Salisbury
Cathedral, the Very Reverend June Osborne, stated recently, "As we reflect on
the sealing of this milestone in human rights, we hope to help people to engage
on a personal level with the values it represents and its lasting legacy of
equality and justice." It has caused some in the UK to use it as a touchstone in
the call for a written constitution.
So perhaps the best
way to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is to take
some time to reflect: to reflect on the meaning of the rights that the document
has come to stand for, and also to reflect on how the most important documents
in human history, those that stand the test of time, are those whose meanings
can shift and adapt to changing needs. If the Magna Carta had remained a static
document that was only permitted to mean what its framers had intended it would
do little more than regulate fish weirs in the Thames.