794 Years Ago…


Per Scriptum,

E. Wesley — Mackinac Center Intern

June 15th should go down in history as a cornerstone in the freedom movement in the West. Although the Magna Carta didn’t apply to all men and women when first crafted, it implemented the concept of fundamental human rights into political reality. In the West, it was arguably the first step towards forming a society with explicit rights for humanity, and limitations on how a ruler can rule over his subjects. We ought to remember the strife that determined the fate of such a vital document.

In 1204, King John of England was forced to concede the loss of his French provinces. However, he was determined to regain popularity among the English nobles by continuing renewed military campaigns with France. This necessitated a rise in English taxes to support the foreign wars, which only led to more dissatisfaction among the nobility. Meanwhile, John also disagreed with Pope Innocent III over the Canterbury archbishopric election. The Pope threatened to depose John in 1212, but stopped when John (as a necessary compromise) offered England as a fief to the Church. John, in attempting to save his own power, now became a puppet.

The nobility, now completely enraged at John’s most resent political blunder, began to form a confederacy. Ironically, Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury revealed a copy of Henry I’s charter of freedoms in a meeting of nobility in London. The nobles swore to renew the observance of this charter. Soon, the confederacy spread throughout England and comprised the vast majority of the all the nobility. A much larger meeting was called at St. Edmundsbury by Langton, and the results were the same. It was agreed that after Christmas, they would trek to London for a “petition.” In the meantime, they armed themselves.

At the festival of Easter, when the nobles expected to hear the King’s reply to their petition, 2,000 knights in majestic array (and countless others of inferior rank) formed at Brackley, 15 miles from Oxford. The King, in an angry rant, refused to limit his power. Not a good idea! The confederacy then chose Robert Fitz-Walter as their general. They besieged Northampton castle (though unsuccessfully), marched through the gates of Bedford castle, and rode on to London. Upon reaching London, the nobles issued compulsory orders to other loyal barons to join the fight. The confederacy trashed the King’s palaces and parks, and “loyalists” flocked to their ranks all the more as an opportunity to make their secret hopes of freedom a reality. King John, having only 7 knights left, finally capitulated. In Runnymede, on June 15th 1215, John signed the “Great Charter” into law.

The Magna Carta’s influence is extraordinary. It laid the foundation for local elections in England (originally, only for the nobility). When England began to institute the “election” into society as a legitimate means of governance, it simultaneously spelled doom on its class system. Noble councils became parliaments, and rights to lords became rights to mankind. America would then take these seeds and plant them in a new world.

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