Fly out of London’s Heathrow Airport and you may pass over a grassy field called Runnymede. Eight hundred years ago this month, it offered a colorful spectacle, dotted with the tents of barons and knights, and the larger pavilion of King John of England, looking like a circus top with the royal standard fluttering above.
Despite the gathering’s pageant-like appearance, the atmosphere was undoubtedly tense. The purpose was to settle a conflict between rebellious barons and their king, a ruler described by a contemporary as “brimful of evil qualities.”
John’s efforts to raise money to regain lost lands in France exceeded the usual taxes and levies that the nobles had accepted from his predecessors. The king seized the estates, and sometimes the person, of wealthy lords or merchants and demanded hefty payments for their release.
If his years of amassing cash had led to victory, John might have got away with his arbitrary methods; but when he was defeated in France, a group of barons rose up against him and captured London. As part of a peace deal brokered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the king accepted the baron’s demands, put to him in a document called Magna Carta, or “the Great Charter.”
Magna Carta was not the first charter to be granted by an English king. A century earlier, Henry I, by issuing a Coronation Charter, had indicated that he would be more respectful of the nobles’ privileges than was his predecessor. But Henry’s successors soon returned to the arbitrary ways of kings in those times.
Magna Carta, too, looked like it might be short-lived. It was soon annulled by Pope Innocent III, who had formed an alliance with the king. But John died the following year, and the nobles backing his successor, the nine-year-old Henry III, needed support against a rival claimant to the throne. To gain that support, Henry’s government reissued its own version of Magna Carta, which remains part of the laws of England.
Copies were made and dispersed to many of the great English cathedrals. The Latin original was translated first into French, the language of the nobility, and then into English. By the end of the century, peasants were citing it in a struggle against injustice.
The first printed edition was made in 1508. In the 1640s, parliamentarians saw in it a legal basis for their overthrow of King Charles I. Later rebels, including the American revolutionaries and Nelson Mandela, have similarly justified their actions by appealing to Magna Carta.
What these fighters for justice and freedom take from this 3,500-word document is the brief statements of general principles in response to John’s arbitrary seizure of his subjects’ property and person. In its 39th Chapter, Magna Carta states: “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or diseised [dispossessed], or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, nor will we send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.” Chapter 40 states, concisely, another powerful principle: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.”
These two chapters have their modern echo in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which decrees that no state shall deprive anyone of life, liberty, or property “without due process of law” or deny anyone “the equal protection of the laws.”
Yet Magna Carta is not a democratic document. Although it established the requirement of common consent to taxation, that consent was to be obtained from an assembly of earls, barons, bishops, and abbots – in the age of chivalry, not even knights were invited to participate.
The idea that towns such as London should be represented was voiced at the time, but it found no place in the final text. What Magna Carta shows, therefore, is that “Who rules?” is one question, and “What, if any, are the limits to political power?” is another.
Because Magna Carta attempted to set limits to political power without grounding these limits in the sovereignty of the people, it demonstrated a problem with which philosophers have grappled for even longer than 800 years. From where do the principles that constrain rulers come, if from neither the rulers nor their subjects?
The tradition of natural law offers an answer that was familiar to medieval scholars, for whom natural law was knowable to us by our natural reason (as opposed to those laws that could be discovered only through divine revelation). Magna Carta’s key principles can be seen as derived from reason because the very idea of a law excludes arbitrary arrest and seizure, as well as the rendering of a verdict on any grounds other than the proper application of the law. If A is legally bound to return B’s cow when she strays onto his land, and then C’s cow strays onto B’s land in relevantly similar circumstances, B must also be bound to return C’s cow. C need not bribe the judge to get his cow back.
There is nothing in Magna Carta that prevents the enactment and enforcement of unjust laws; but it does elevate the law above the ruler’s will. Unfortunately, that idea still is not accepted in many countries. Moreover, as the continued existence of the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay shows, even among countries that trace their political institutions to Magna Carta, perceived security threats have weakened the requirement that no one be arrested except under the law of the land, and that justice not be delayed.
This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne.
Image: A close-up view of the 1297 Magna Carta in the basement of the National Archives in Washington March 3, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing.