|A drawing of the effigy of John's tomb in Worcester cathedral|
The final straw was the complete failure in France of John's efforts to recapture Normandy. Since the time of the Norman conquest the 'King of England' had spoken French and also ruled over substantial parts of northern and western France. Some kings had actually spent rather more time in Normandy and Anjou than they had in England. John was finally defeated by Phillip II of France in 1214 leaving not with the title Count of Anjou but merely a long list of failures and debts. John, then, had long been unpopular and, unbeknownst to him, only had a year or so to live. Things were not going well. To give you a measure of his popularity, in 1235 Matthew Parris, the creator of the wonderful map of Britain from the 1250s, seen below, said this of John: Vile as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John.
For as long as there had been a king, or queen, of England the ruler had always taken the attitude that they were in that position by divine right, literally appointed by God to rule as they saw fit. Their decisions were completely their own and they could change the law of the land at a stroke without consulting with anyone else; they considered themselves to be outside of and above the law. Magna Carta changed all this. Much of what was written in Magna Carta was a little parochial and dealt very specifically with issues of the time; but there are two points that stand out from all the others, what are now called articles 39 and 40. They read thusly:
"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, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment 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."
Flowery language aside these are two points that are, today, the cornerstone of justice systems around the globe and come June 1215 John was in no position to refuse when the barons presented him with their list of demands. In green and pleasant Runnymede, near Windsor, John conceded to the demands of the barons. Being John, though, he had completely reneged on the Great Charter before the year was out. He had appealed to the Pope to declare it null as it impinged on his holy rights; that was typical of John, always thinking of others before himself. The Pope who, remember, had excommunicated John only 6 years earlier came to his rescue. He recognised the risk to the status quo that this precedent might set and duly declared Magna Carta null and void claiming that it was 'unjust, illegal, harmful to royal rights and shameful to English people'.
In what was probably the best result all round, John died in October of the following year whilst still waging a campaign against the barons. His son, Henry III, was only 9 years old and not considered capable of ruling on his own; William Marshall was appointed as regent to rule in his stead, and he did a pretty good job of it. In conjunction with the young Henry he reissued Magna Carta but with some of the clauses removed, most notably clause 61 which appointed 25 nobles to act as a kind of arbiter of whether the king was doing a good job or not; if not then the clause gave the populace explicit permission to openly rebel against the king. This new charter achieved little in real terms but it did show that the new king and his regent were open to negotiations, at least more open than John had been.
|No fan of King John, Matthew Parris produced what was|
then one of the most accurate maps of Britain ever made
Although these events happened a full eight centuries ago they were the birth of what can be considered our modern system of Government. Committees were established to provide oversight of the monarchs actions, some were lords, some were commoners; and so the first version of parliament was born. Today parliament is not especially popular, with anyone. It is as if it has become the unaccountable despot it was supposed to protect us from. But I don't look at this as a bad thing because everybody thinks this. The left think parliament is rubbish, the right think parliament is rubbish, everyone thinks parliament is rubbish and this is a good thing, because it shows it's working. For a democratic society to work there has to be an enormous amount of compromise, and whist it is better to bend than to break, compromises rarely make people happy.
This isn't to say that there aren't problems, there are, not least the lack of engagement of the populous at large with the political system. Young people in particular seem to think that politics isn't relevant to them, so they don't vote, so politicians don't pay them much attention and so politics actually does become less relevant to them. But the solution to this isn't apathy, it should be a motivation to become even more involved. The days when you could change the system from without are gone, they've been gone from this country since the 1650s. For centuries we've been a stable, prosperous nation and we have our hated bureaucracy to thank for that. If we want something to change we have to engage with the system, compromise and ensure that no one is happy. This is the secret to our happiness.
The Magna Carta was the beginning of this unhappy happiness and it has weathered all challenges. That of Charles I resulted in a brutal civil war and his execution but parliament and the charter persevered. No monarch since has put up any serious resistance to the supremacy of the people and its parliament - at least not on these islands. On July 4th 1776 the British colonies in the fledgling United States, who had been rebelling against what they considered to be a despotic King George, won their independence. They, rightly, didn't want to pay taxes without a say in how they were spent; no taxation without representation. When they wrote the Declaration of Independence the founding fathers were coming up with a new Magna Carta for their newly founded country. Even there, though, it has retained its prominence. Magna Carta has been referenced more than 400 times by the US Supreme Court and in the crypt of the Capital building there is a golden copy of the Magna Carta along with a golden copy of King John's seal.
In about a month there will be a general election in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The result looks finely balanced at this stage. I don't care who you vote for. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't even really matter who wins, over a lifetime, over the centuries, it all balances out. I do think its important that democracy wins, however.
Get out there and vote.
|This is one of only 4 original copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This one is held at the British Library near Kings Cross|
and will be on display through the summer