Monday, June 15, 2015

Magna Carta, You're Looking Good For 800!

Today, June 15, 2015, marks the 800th birthday of the Magna Carta, one of the most influential single documents - perhaps the most - in the history of the world.  It laid the foundation for later great charters, like the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and the general concept that everyone is subject to the law, even the king.

The Magna Carta is also one of those things most of us read about in school and promptly forgot after the test, am I right?  I'd thought about writing a lengthy explanation of the history of the Magna Carta to show everyone reading how terribly important it is to our modern world.  Then, during my research, I came across a couple things that did the job better than I could.  Hey, it's a blog, after all, not a doctoral thesis.  Two of the most learned and entertaining people I know (or know of) offered up their takes on the Magna Carta.  First up is Terry Jones, most famously of the Monty Python troupe.  Mr. Jones, however, is also quite the history aficionado, and has appeared on TV shows such as "The Complete and Utter History of Britain" and is also an Emmy-nominated ("Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming") writer of the series "Terry Jones' Medieval Lives".  Mr. Jones made this short, entertaining and informative video on the Magna Carta:

The other gentleman I'd like to quote is my lifelong friend, Mike Pedrotty.  Mike is an award-winning teacher at Airline High School in Bossier City, Louisiana, and was named National History Bowl Coach of the Year.  The man knows what he's talking about...  Anyway, I posted a story about Magna Carta on Facebook a while back and Mike responded with this gem:

I do teach the Magna Carta to my AP Gov students, and I do think it's important, but the story is more complex than I think is commonly understood. 

Warning: Long post ahead. Proceed at your own risk.

I would disagree with this article in characterizing John as a tyrant who brutally taxed poor Englishmen to finance his foreign wars. He was an uncharismatic and very unpopular king who was an able bureaucrat, and a vigorous and imaginative tax collector. His barons hated him because he demanded the full measure of what they owed him (and then some) in terms of both manpower and treasure. 

But the "foreign wars" were anything but foreign. John needed those resources to fight Philip Augustus of France in defense of England's possessions in France (England owned more of France than France did, until Philip got done taking most of it from John). The lands he was trying to defend were often the French fiefs of the very barons who opposed him in England. They had just got used to Henry II and Richard I defending them with fewer taxes. They were able to do so because they didn't have to fight a Philip Augustus, who was himself a great bureaucrat and taxer.

More to the point, the Magna Carta is only a foundational document for our Constitution in that it is an early example of limited government, an early example of subjects telling a king that his power was not limitless. However, in this case, it only protected the rights of the great English barons, who were utterly unconcerned with the rights of commoners, burgers, serfs, and the like. It also bound the king's power not by written law, but by tradition. Finally, it was torn up by John as soon as he escaped the field at Runnymeed and was ignored by later monarchs in England and everywhere else. The real check on English royal power comes from Parliament, whose power grows very gradually from the time of Edward I onward, and then really comes to rival that of the king only in the 17th century through its struggle against the Stuarts (who tried and failed to rule as absolute monarchs along the lines of Louis XIV). In this fight, English jurists did harken back to the Magna Carta to support their conception of limited monarchy, and it's really here that the document becomes part of the corpus that would lead to the Constitution. But some random English serf or townsman in 1215 would not have known that the powers of the king had suddenly been limited.

That's my take, anyway.

Thanks, Mike and Terry, for a great lesson on a great piece of history!

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