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August - September 2007

Political News

Magna Carta: The dawn of civil liberties

by Anil Mehta

Magna Carta is all about individual’s rights to justice and liberty, something Gandhiji fought all his life for his countrymen. Dr. Mehta looks at the history and significance of this most important document in British history

Magna Carta is one of those things of which everybody has a vague idea ‘some sort of historic document’ but very few save history enthusiasts and students know what it exactly is.

Magna Carta or the Great Charter, written in Latin, is the document issued rather unwillingly by King John of England (reigned 1199 – 1216) to his rebellious barons (those who held land directly from the king) and clergy agreeing to their demands for the individual’s rights and feudal reforms. It was signed by the king on 15th June 1215 at Runnymede, near Windsor.

Magna Carta is one of the primary constitutional documents of Britain and the signing of it is considered as a key event in the history of medieval England. The document affirmed the individual’s rights to justice and liberty, and is regarded as the cornerstone of English liberty.

John was the most unpopular of English kings, whose expensive military failures against France, disputes with the Pope and English clergy, heavy taxation and his rights over private properties had provoked the barons to revolt against him. In 1215, a group of them supported by the clergy and other people, drew up a charter stating their demands which they sent to the king for approval. When he refused, the barons renounced their allegiance to him and rebelled. John, sensing civil war, met the barons at Runnymede to discuss their grievances and agreed to seal the charter guaranteeing their rights and privileges.

The resulting document, Magna Carta checked the arbitrary rule of the king and refined many feudal practices for the first time in British history. The 63 clauses of the document covered a wide range of issues of which some are directly concerned with rivers and land usage, and others with the civil liberties limiting the absolute power of the king and protecting the privileges of the church and the nobles. It regulated judicial system and granted rights to a fair trial and freedom from arbitrary arrests of English freemen (nobles and landowners).

The clauses that dealt with the individual liberties were to have wider implications in the future than anticipated at the time. It meant that life, liberty, and property were not to be taken away from anyone without judgement of his peers and then only by the process of the law of the land.

Magna Carta set forth the privileges of the aristocracy and the church but it is doubtful whether it was of much benefit to the great majority of the ordinary people such as serfs (slave labourers). Nevertheless something had been achieved. It established for the first time a very significant constitutional principal, namely the power of the king could be curtailed by a written grant; the principal that eventually led to the creation of Parliament.

The charter was to be enforced by a council of 25 barons which, if the king reneged on his premises would declare war on him. Indeed it was often violated by medieval kings including John himself, resulting in barons’ wars. It was reissued with some changes in the later years.

Magna Carta subsequently has come to be regarded as the cornerstone of English constitution and has achieved a legendary status. Its principles have been exported to USA and many other countries. Three miles south-east of Windsor a Magna Carta Memorial is created (1957) at Runnymede in Surrey. It’s a simple unimposing monument in the form of a small domed pavilion, containing a stone pillar at the centre with the inscription ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law’.

The four existing copies of the original Magna Carta are held in Lincoln Castle and Salisbury Cathedral - one copy each - and two in the British Library.

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