Magna Carta: The Medieval Roots of Modern Politics by David StarkeyIn this erudite, entertaining book, award-winning historian and television presenter David Starkey untangles historical and modern misconceptions about one of the founding documents of democracy. Along the way, he shows how the Magna Carta laid the foundation for the British constitution, influenced the American Revolution and the U.S. constitution, and continues to shape jurisprudential thinking about individual rights around the world today.
In 1215, King John I of England faced a domestic crisis. He had just lost an expensive campaign to retake his ancestral lands in France, an unfortunate adventure that he had funded by heavily taxing the baronial lords of England. Sick of the unpopular kings heavy-handed rule, and unimpressed by the kings unsuccessful attempt to seize Normandy, the feudal barons united to make demands of their sovereign for certain protections. These demands, the Articles of the Barons, were submitted to the king in rough draft after the rebels occupied three cities, most significantly London.
A few years later, after being edited and amplified by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, the Articles would come to be known as the Magna Carta. The self-interested barons couldnt have known it at the time, but those demands would one day become the bedrock of democratic political development around the globe--even though that influence was largely due to mythologizing by later scholars who warped the symbolism of the document to support their arguments in favor of the rights of all citizens.
Although the Magna Carta itself made no requests on behalf of the peasantry, in its structure the outlines of modern democratic reform are plainly visible. Among other things, it demanded limits on the ability of the crown to levy taxes; protection of the rights of the church; the guarantee of swift justice; and a ban on unjust imprisonment. Those protections and guarantees were strictly intended for benefit of feudal barons, but the free citizens of todays democratic nations owe an enormous debt to this history-changing document.
After John's death, the regency government of his young son, Henry III , reissued the document in , stripped of some of its more radical content, in an unsuccessful bid to build political support for their cause. At the end of the war in , it formed part of the peace treaty agreed at Lambeth , where the document acquired the name Magna Carta, to distinguish it from the smaller Charter of the Forest which was issued at the same time. Short of funds, Henry reissued the charter again in in exchange for a grant of new taxes. His son, Edward I , repeated the exercise in , this time confirming it as part of England's statute law. The charter became part of English political life and was typically renewed by each monarch in turn, although as time went by and the fledgling Parliament of England passed new laws, it lost some of its practical significance. At the end of the 16th century there was an upsurge in interest in Magna Carta.
The legacy of Magna Carta has been celebrated with an outpouring of speeches from senior members of the judiciary, lauding the symbolic agreement but also cautioning about historical over-interpretation. The document signed by rebel barons and sealed on behalf of King John at Runnymede years ago on Monday was swiftly repudiated, revised and reissued, ensuring that its true legal inheritance has been contested repeatedly over the centuries. Magna Carta was a product of its time. The medieval knights and lords who gathered in June assembled a long list of grievances to present to the king. Those absences do not deter enthusiasts. That both the king, and by extension the government, must behave in accordance with the law is one of the constitutional principles that emerges from Magna Carta.
Magna Carta bears an iconic status in legal history. Signed eight centuries ago by King John at Runnymede, near Windsor, it laid the foundations for constraints on arbitrary power - the basis for the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. From mediaeval to modern times, it has been invoked by those struggling against injustice around the world, from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela. In the past two years alone, it has been cited twice by Singapore's High Court as the origin of liberties protected by Articles 9 1 and 11 1 of the Constitution. The agreement at Runnymede was not a constitutional document intended to limit power, but a peace treaty to preserve the king's rule. On the contrary, those limitations that it did impose on the king were primarily for the benefit of the Anglo-Norman - that is, French - aristocracy.
How much do you know about the medieval document Magna Carta? Here, we bring you the facts Magna Carta is a 13th-century document enshrining the rights, privileges and liberties of the clergy and the nobles, and placing limits on the power of the crown. Most of the 63 clauses deal with the administration of justice, and the detail of feudal rights and customs. Read more:. Magna Carta was sealed by King John on 15 June
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