Friday, 19 June 2015

MAGNA CARTA:  Does it still apply?                          

The Magna Carta celebrated its 800th birthday on June 15, 2015.  The words Magna Carta is the Latin for Great Charter. It’s a written promise signed by King John of England  at Runnymede, what was then a small town near Windsor, on June 14, 1215.

The document comprises of 2,500 words in 68 lines and printed in Medieval Latin. Could the king read Latin when he signed the document? Ink as we know it didn’t exist then so the text was written on sheep skin with a quill dipped in a mixture of dust and water. It was originally drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the purpose of making peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons. His nobles weren’t too pleased in the manner in which he seized their lands so that he could sell them to raise money for his own coffers; hence they demanded reform from King John. The Charter was a promise for the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, seizure of their lands, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, and it was to be implemented through a council of 25 barons.

John Lackland was the brother of King Richard who was rarely in England or France as he was for the most part in the near east leading his crusades. We he became King John, he ruled in King Richard’s stead from April 6, 1199 until his death in 1216 at age 50.

John was the youngest of the five surviving sons of Henry I and Eleanor of Aquitaine—an alliance that joined the lands of Aquitaine to Normandy and Anjou In the north of France) and all of England. John was at first not expected to inherit significant lands. Following the failed rebellion of his elder brothers between 1173 and 1174, however, John became King Henry's favourite child.

Born last of the line, John was lacking in land and so their father, King Henry seized properties already settled on by the older brothers and reassigned them to John, which did not sit well with his siblings Henry Jr. Geoffrey and Richard (the oldest). John lorded over his older brothers by saying, “Just remember, daddy loves me best. Daddy took it all for me.That is a great way to piss off your siblings.  

John was appointed the Lord of Ireland in 1177 and given lands in England and in France. John's elder brothers, William, Henry and Geoffrey died young. By the time Richard I became king in 1189, John was a potential heir to the throne.

By the time King Henry laid his head upon his deathbed pillow, John had realigned his support for Richard, (the oldest of King Henry’s children) to ensure that he would be on the right side of the new monarch who was succeeding to the throne.  John always seems to have been looking out for his own self-interest and was quick to betray others, including those of his own family to ensure his own interests were looked after.  

Richard, who was the king, was off on one of his crusades and he was subsequently captured and imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria. (In 2000, I saw that castle where he was imprisoned) John seized the moment of vulnerability to conspire with the king of France to take over the Anglo-French empire, a time which, in popular culture, has come to be associated with the legend of Robin Hood, a legend which may be true or simply a myth. John’s brother, Prince Henry Jr. was long dead of dysentery. Prince Geoffrey had fallen off his horse and died.

Prince John had developed a reputation as a lover of fine food, generous drink and showy attire. He wore brocade mantles and coloured hose (stockings) and gold cross garters. He bathed once every three weeks and stayed in bed with his women until noon. This certainly cemented in the minds of others as Prince John being somebody who was more interested in his own pleasures than in governing a kingdom.

Previously, John unsuccessfully attempted a rebellion against Richard's royal administrators whilst his brother was participating in the Third Crusade.

John’s dreams of ruling an empire were thwarted by King Richard’s return and the ever-wily prince sprinted to his brother’s side, sucking up to him by remaining at least outwardly loyal to him to ensure that he would be designated the king’s heir when the childless Richard would eventually die which he in fact did in 1199. John then became the king.

To suggest that King John was a good king is to suggest that a storm surge is a good thing to have coming towards you on a day at the beach. There were only three kings of England that were really evil, They were; Richard III who was killed in 1485 during  a bloody 30-year power struggle between Richard's House of York and the rival House of Lancaster, Charles I who was decapitated on orders of Parliament in 1649 and of course King John who died of dysentery in 1216.  

King John believed that there was a impediment to his reign. John’s brother Geoffrey had fathered a son, Arthur, just 12 at the time of King Richard’s death, but growing into an adolescent threat in King John’s early tenure. So the king had him imprisoned. The 13th-century monastic chronicles from an abbey in south Wales, recount Arthur’s death in the tower of Rouen: “After dinner on the Thursday before Easter, when he was drunk and possessed by the devil, King John killed him with his own hand, and attaching a great stone to the body, threw it in the Seine.” There was also the story that the king had ordered Arthur’s eyes be put out with red hot irons. This brings to mind the story about King Richard III ordering the murder of two young princes in the Tower of London so that he also could keep his throne. Lurid rumors about Arthur’s murder were spreading from very early in John’s reign which really cast a dark shadow over his reputation from then on.

The deaths of Matilda de Briouze and her eldest son exposed John’s ruthlessness. A disagreement with King John over debts prompted Matilda’s husband, William, a baron with lands in Normandy, Sussex and Wales, to flee. Matilda was imprisoned along with her son at Corfe Castle in Dorset. They died shortly after their imprisonment.

The idea that a baronial family that had once controlled most of the Welsh borderlands had been high in John’s favour was of some real concern by the other barons. There was a sense from the barons that if this could happen to them, then this could happen to any one of them also. That was when their thoughts of a Magna Carta began to germinate in their minds.

In 1204, King John lost Anjou and Normandy to the king of France. The years that followed saw the ramped-up extraction of taxes, levies and arbitrary fines to finance his aims of regaining those lost territories subsequently the barons saw their coffers diminished and their lands sometimes seized by arbitrary dispossession on orders of King John. By then, the barony was still powerful and really pissed off at their king.

The barons were led by Robert FitzWalter, whose own lands had been confiscated and swiftly granted to the king’s bastard son, Henry. Perhaps that was the last straw that prompted the barons to act. The baronial army seized London in mid-May, leaving King John no other choice but to negotiate the terms of what was simply known then as a charter, or carta, later becoming known as Magna Carta. On June 15, 1215 at a meadow on the neutral grounds of Runnymede while surrounded by angry barons with their armies nearby ready to kill him if he refused to sign the document, King John signed it above his royal red seal made from bee’s wax.

Of the 63 articles contained in the documents, perhaps none resonates as clearly as article 39: “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 (King John) 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.” The constraints on sovereign power were clearly set.

Did King John honour his commitment to adhere to the promise he made to the barons when he signed the Charter?  Does a chicken have teeth? A month later, King John disavowed it. The barons were back at war with him.

History could have turned out quite differently had King John not conveniently died in the autumn of 1216 with dysentery again thereby leaving the 9-year-old Henry as his heir. It’s really only because of John’s death that this resulted in the Charter being a lasting document. With a child king on the throne, it gave the barons years to entrench Magna Carta as the law of the land before the king came of age. Charter revisions were made in the years following John’s death, the final version dated 1300.

The irony in all of this is that had King John been a better man, there would be no revolt by the barons and hence, no Magna Carta.

Probably the most important clause in the document was the one that stated; “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 (King John) 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. That paragraph in the Charter was the very foundation of human rights that followed in civilized nations.

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