800 Years Ago
All J.P.s should be ready to acknowledge the approaching 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, the Great Charter, in June 1215 which ensured that everyone, including the Sovereign, was subject to law and that everybody had the right to justice and a fair trial. It was, and remains, a cornerstone of British Justice, the system on which New Zealand processes are modelled.
This News Feature is timely - some events leading up to the Magna Carta occurred 800 years ago today - while the anniversary of the signing in May will be widely celebrated in England, the U.S. and other countries which have elements of the Magna Carta in their founding documents.
England’s aristocracy was at odds with their King John who in 1214 increased already harsh taxes to help pay for his unsuccessful expensive military campaigns in France. The charges were hiked, including one called “scutage” paid instead of providing Knights at the front. This was one tax too many on top of the long-term merciless exploitation of baronial families and the unpredictable ruling styles that they had been subjected to by various kings. Rebellion was in the air.
King John, reigned 1199 - 1216
And Bad King John, as he became known, was off-side with the Church, too, after he rejected the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Plaster maquette of Archbishop Stephen Langton
Two groups, the Church (Langton and a Papal representative) and some 40 Rebel Barons were now against the King and they met late in 1214 to hatch a plan of action against their insufferable Monarch.
The aggrieved parties met again on January 6th 1215 in King John’s headquarters, The Temple, regarded as the heart of legal London. They sought concessions from the King - not only remedies for their personal complaints, but in their document “Articles of the Barons” they sought wide-reaching reform with constitutional guarantees. Some authorities say King John personally attended the showdown in The Temple to angrily confront his adversaries; others commented that the likes of this rebellion had not been seen since the Norman Conquest in 1066.
But there was no outcome of the meeting, the stand-off continued, without resolution but King John was left in no doubt that he would have to do something to cool tempers.
Hatching a Plan
Archbishop Langton had a plan, or rather revived a 113 year old document, a proclamation originally made by King Henry the First, his “Coronation Charter” of 1100. It outlined measures designed to avoid abuse of power such as that practised by his predecessors. But he, and successors, conveniently overlooked the Charter.
Now, in 1215, Archbishop Langton was playing mediator and showed the old document to the rebellious Barons. They liked the thought of regulating the King by written agreement and decided that a new and improved version should be worked-up. A rewrite of the “Coronation Charter” was begun.
Yet To Come
By the end of January relations were at breaking point between the barons and their King. They showed they really meant business when in coming months they were to disown him. They sought, and received, support from the citizens of London who were happy to side with the rebellion. The barons had taken London: their success encouraged other land-owners to join their cause and so the protests were snow-balling. The King would be forced to negotiate a peace and his concession came in June at Runnymede Meadow, when he considered and signed the newly written charter, a constitutional document called the Great Charter, or Magna Carta.
Sources: History Learning website, the Britsh Library website, Salisbury Catherdal website, National Trust of UK website, Wilipedia websites.