How does The Magna Carta influence the Modern Perceptions of Civil Rights?

The Magna Carta from Magna Charta cum Statutis Angliae
The Magna Carta [1], also called Magna Carta Libertatum[2] is an English charter, originally issued in 1215. The year of its signing represents a key landmark in Britain’s constitutional history. This is also the starting point of a long historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today. The document established and codified many of the principles that still govern modern western constitutional thought. Magna Carta has directly influenced many common law fundamental documents, such as the United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights to name just a few, and thus it is considered and recognized to be one of the most important documents in the history of democracy itself, as well as civil rights and obligations and common law in general.

The Initial Reasons Behind Magna Carta

Originally, Magna Carta was created because of the broad disagreements between Pope Innocent III, the English king John and his barons specifically addressing the very rights of the monarch. [3] King John was not the most popular and likable ruler due to a number of reasons. First of all, he was a failure on the battlefield and he was forced to give up English territories to France as result of his loses. Furthermore, several of the areas he lost previously had contributed a large chunk of the crown’s income. This, along with ongoing expensive battles with France, forced King John to demand much higher and higher taxes from his people. The English barons broadly disagreed with King John’s politics. They refused to pay the requested higher taxes as compensation and claimed that the king himself violated the custom of consulting them first by not only raising taxes on his own, but also - establishing and introducing new ones. King John further alienated his barons when violated traditional customs and ignored the Pope’s wish when he appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury. This created a significant dispute with the Church and King John eventually was forced to pay the Pope an annual rent after he handed the country over to Pope. His barons were outraged because their land was now officially owned by the Church which limited their .

Decline of King John and 1215 civil war

Due to his harsh and unpredictable rule, John gradually lost support of his two most powerful backing groups of people in England – the barons and the Catholic bishops. Their calls for a political reforms were rejected many times by the king and as tensions grew thus led to a civil war in the spring of 1215. King John did not take seriously barons’ actions until the rebels reached and entered the city of London. Then it was time for negotiations which ended with signing of a document[4], containing a list of demands by the rebels.[5] An official version of this very document was released soon afterwords with the name “Magna Carta”. In return for King John’s signature and the reached agreement, the barons themselves acknowledged the authority of the king, renewed their pledge of allegiance to him and ended their hostilities, opposition and resistance to his rule.

The essence of original Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was originally written in Latin. Once signed by the king, it automatically became a list of promises that he recognized and agreed upon to keep. The principles enshrined in the Charter are numerous. In essence, the king was required to proclaim certain liberties and accept that he could not rule in arbitrary and/or unpredictable way:[6]

  1. The king was subject to the law and he could then be punished by seizure of his lands and castles;
  2. Everyone was subject to the law;
  3. No free man could be punished except through the law of the land or the lawful judgement of his peers;
  4. All judges, constables, sheriffs and bailiffs had to actually have knowledge of the law;
  5. Justice could not be sold, denied or delayed;
  6. Taxes could only be levied and assessed with the consent of the governed.

Further clauses in Magna Carta confirmed the “ancient liberties” of the City of London and the freedom and independence of the Church of England, others - clarified inheritance and use of the forests and fishing rights. An interesting fact is that three of these clauses remain in force in current UK law and can be found in the current UK Statute Law Database. These clauses guarantee the freedom the Church, the right to a due process and the “ancient liberties” of London.[7]

Influences of Magna Carta throughout oncoming centuries

Magna Carta has made a long journey through time, spreading over the globe by virtue of its implications and legacy. More than 800 years later its simply laid out ideas of freedom and justice have become integral and inseparable part of the very genetic structure of the mankind. [8] For about a century after it was initially signed, the king and the nobles tussled over the provisions of the Magna Carta, and it was periodically revised, altered, enriched and updated. For instance, it was the 1225 version – much shorter than the original one – that was confirmed officially by the new King Edward I and found its way and expression through the first directly elected Parliament in 1264 and the first Statute Roll in 1297. The spirit of Magna Carta evoked during the famous Putney debates of 1647.

Later, with Charles II restoration, Magna Carta acted as a solid base and helped to codify the ancient writ of Habeas Corpus[9] passed by Parliament in 1679. Along with that most of the 1297 statute was repealed by Parliament at various times between 1828 and 1969.[10]

Magna Carta vital importance in modern law cases

However, Magna Carta is not just one of the oldest statutes of law. When England's barons clipped the wings of their tyrannical King John at the time, they eventually established principles that still influence British justice even some 800 years on. And it was no other but those very same ideas, enshrined in the Charter, which formed its essential legacy, a legacy first for England, and ultimately for the United Kingdom and the former British colonies or territories heavily under Brit’s influence as a whole.

Magna Carta is, as the United Kingdom Supreme Court noted in January 2014, a constitutional instrument – standing alongside the Petition of Rights in 1628, the Bill of Rights in 1689, the Act of settlement in 1701 and the Act of Union in 1707. It was arguable, said the court, that fundamental principles contained in such constitutional instruments were not abrogated by the European Communities Act, which requires courts in the United Kingdom to follow European law. That is one of the main reasons Magna Carta is still to be cited in UK courts even today.

Ideas of freedom and democracy, the rule of law to which all are subject are such milestone features of Magna Carta, spread via France to the rebellious colonies of the New World. Thomas Jefferson not only paid tribute to the Levellers of the famous Putney Dabates as an inspiration for the revolution, but used the breaches of the Magna Carta by yet another king, as retrospective justification for creating a brand new country in 1776 – the United States of America.

Amendments of the Constitution of the US, concerning the primacy of the law above the head of state, trace their lineage to the death of the Divine Right of Kings by the first document in English history to limit the power of the monarch – again the Magna Carta itself. In 1947 the principles of Magna Carta enshrined within the constitution of the world's largest democracy – India, former British colony and part of the Empire. With its population of over 1.2 billion people India is a powerful guarantor of the Charter's principles. Only a year later, after the end of the World War II – the horrific evidence of what happens when freedom, democracy and the rule of law are swept aside by force, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. And although it still represents a work in progress for many, Article 6 of the very European Convention of Human Rights also echoes Magna Carta.

To the present day Magna Carta is evoked and cited whenever basic freedoms come under threat. As an idea of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, it is lapping against the shores of despotism. The principles set out in Magna Carta have driven even such powerful historical events as the Arab Spring and the ever-ongoing protests against despotism and absolute power around the world.

These basic and key principles, together with the power of social networking and the Internet to spread and back them up will undoubtedly continue to have huge influence wherever freedom is under attack. The freedom of speech, the Internet and instant worldwide personal communication and real-time social interactions are emblematic of the fluttering pennants of the twenty-five barons who waited impatiently for their despotic king to round the last bend in the river on a summer's day in 1215.

References

  1. literally translated as “The Great Paper”
  2. Or also referred to as “Great Charter of Freedoms”)
  3. Causes and effects of the Magna Carta: http://www.skwirk.com/p-c_s-1_u-105_t-279_c-929/causes-and-effects-of-the-magna-carta/nsw/causes-and-effects-of-the-magna-carta/introduction-to-democracy/democratic-development
  4. Initially this document was called “Articles of the Barons”
  5. Magna Carta: A turning point in English history or When the king became a sitting duck: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/magna-carta-turning-point-english-history
  6. The Magna Carta, nearly 800 years old, still influences modern perceptions of civil rights: http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-08-26/magna-carta-nearly-800-years-old-still-influences-modern-perceptions-civil-rights
  7. Magna Carta - Rights still in force today: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Magna_Carta
  8. Magna Carta Today - To no one deny or delay right or justice: http://magnacarta800th.com/magna-carta-today/
  9. Latin for “you [shall] have the body”, it is a legal action or writ by means of which detainees can seek relief from unlawful imprisonment. In modern US Law it is a recourse in law whereby a person can report an unlawful detention or imprisonment before a court, usually through a prison official. A writ of habeas corpus, is known as the “the great and efficacious writ in all manner of illegal confinement”, being a remedy available to the meanest against the mightiest: http://www.lectlaw.com/def/h001.htm
  10. Magna Carta in the modern age: http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-in-the-modern-age

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