The Long Legacy Of Laying Down The Law

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 5 2015 @ 8:16am

David Carpenter, who recently published a new translation of the Magna Cartareflects on its 800th anniversary:

In 1215 Magna Carta was an elitist document, yet by the end of the 13th century it had become known across society, dish_magnacarta and all sections of society, legitimately or not, were laying claim to its benefits. … Already in 1215 itself the Charter had been translated from Latin into French, the vernacular language of the nobility. By the end of the 13th century the Charter was being proclaimed in English, the language of everyone else.

In around 1300, the peasants of Bocking in Essex … appealed to Magna Carta in a struggle against their lord’s bailiff. In the 1350s, legislation defined the “no free man” as “no man of whatever condition”. The Charter seemed increasingly to have a universal application. It had established the base from which it would go around the world. Its appeal lay not in its precise details, but in its assertion of the rule of law. Everything is of its own time, but only some ideas are taken up and spread. When human rights are still trampled on in many parts of the world, what happened in a meadow by the Thames 800 years ago retains its significance. Let us hope Magna Carta will still be celebrated 100 years from now.

Nick Higham also pays tribute to the document:

As to all the modern-day brouhaha around the anniversary – that rests particularly on another principle bequeathed by the charter to subsequent generations, a principle fundamental to British law and the law of many other nations, including the United States.

Magna Carta’s most famous clauses forbid the king to sell, deny or delay justice, and protect any free man from arbitrary imprisonment “save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land”.

“Free men” in 1215 accounted for less than half the population – the rest were serfs, to whom the charter did not apply. And “men” meant men – women, except for widows, merit barely a mention in Magna Carta. But the principle was established. The law could serve as a bulwark against tyranny. And once established, it has never been revoked.

(Image of Magna carta cum statutis angliae (Great Charter with English Statutes), early 14th-century, via Wikimedia Commons)