One would be foolish to mark the events as being truly English—not least since the Barons were supported by Scots and French troops. None the less, it was something of a milestone in British history and carries, even today, a near mythological status.
This is because Magna Carta established the seminal right of habeas corpus.
Habeas corpus ... is a legal action, or writ, through which a person can seek relief from the unlawful detention of him or herself, or of another person. It protects the individual from harming him or herself, or from being harmed by the judicial system. Of English origin, the writ of habeas corpus has historically been an important instrument for the safeguarding of individual freedom against arbitrary state action.
For this, if nothing else (and very little else remains in effect), we should commemorate the signing of the Magna Carta—for habeas corpus established the foundation of the protection of the individual from the state, provided the basis for Common Law and laid the foundation for England as the cradle of modern freedom.
Put simply, habeas corpus, both quite rightly and effectively, told the state to get to fuck.
No wonder NuLabour have been atttempting, most assiduously, to abolish this fundamental freedom, the devious fucking cunts that they are...
UPDATE: a correction but, nevertheless, an agreement from Tom Paine.
DK is right to celebrate the anniversary, but makes the common mistake of saying that the Great Charter established the Great Writ, habeas corpus. In fact, it makes no mention of it. Blackstone cites the first recorded use of the Great Writ in 1305, but similar writs were issued earlier. Habeas corpus is a keystone of our freedoms, but Magna Carta did not set it in its place.
That'll teach me to trust Wikipedia, eh?
For me, Article 39 of Magna Carta is the most important;
- No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
This established an Englishman's right to "trial by his peers." For a commoner, this meant trial by jury, which has done more to keep us free than any other invention of our fertile civilisation. When it has gone, and we may be apprehended, charged and judged by paid employees of the state, English civilisation will have ended. Every man, however sophisticated his argument, who proposes a limitation of jury trial is King John's spiritual heir and therefore your enemy.
Much of the document deals with the banal interests of the barons who forced King John to Runnymede long ago. Some of the language (for example about the Jews) is offensive to modern ears. That's why it is vital to understand that it is not what this document says that matters. It is what it did. For the first time in history, it limited the power of the state. It ended the rule of men and began the rule of law.
Do go and read the rest...
UPDATE 2: the ever-excellent Bella Gerens—who is both a historian and a Latinist—challenges, to some extent, Tom Paine's view of Magna Carta.
Tom Paine says: ‘For the first time in history, it limited the power of the state. It ended the rule of men and began the rule of law.’
This is not entirely accurate; what Magna Carta actually does is enumerate legal principles that already existed, but which John had routinely ignored or infringed; for the first time, Magna Carta enshrined what all men already held to be true, that the monarch was bound to observe his own laws. That Magna Carta had to be written, and John had to sign it, is merely a function of common law: it created a recorded precedent, thus overriding what had already been convention.
It is also slightly unfair to say that ‘you will be disappointed by’ the other articles.
No. 2 confirms the level of payment of relief upon inheritance – in other words, the Crown cannot demand extortionate inheritance taxes.
No. 3 confirms that underage heirs are not liable for relief/inheritance tax.
No. 4 confirms that trustees cannot plunder an underage person’s inheritance.
No. 7 confirms that widows do not have to pay relief/inheritance tax upon their husband’s death.
No. 9 confirms that only movable goods may be seized for payment of debt – not homes or land.
No. 12, 14, 15 and 16 confirm that no scutage (payment in lieu of service, i.e. tax) can be levied without the consent of those who would be paying it, and even then the Crown cannot demand more than what is reasonable and has been agreed upon.
No. 17, 18, and 19 confirm that people must be tried for crimes in the jurisdiction where they reside or in the jurisdiction where the crime took place.
No. 20 confirms that fines for offences cannot be levied arbitrarily, must be proportionate to the offence, and cannot result in the deprivation of livelihood.
No. 24 confirms that courts held by inappropriate authorities are invalid.
No. 27 confirms that if a man dies intestate, the Crown cannot seize his effects.
No. 28, 30, and 31 confirm that the Crown may not take a man’s property without payment.
No. 32 confirms that the Crown may not freeze or otherwise control a convicted felon’s assets for more than a year and a day.
No. 35 confirms standards in weights and measures.
No. 36 and 40 confirm that the Crown may not deny, delay, or sell justice.
No. 38 confirms that no man may be tried on the basis of hearsay or without the evidence of independent witnesses.
No. 42 confirms the free right of movement into and out of the country.
No. 45 confirms that only men who know and observe the law may be appointed to enforce or decide it.
Each one of these is tremendously important and not a function or product of circumstances limited to 1215. How many of them, I wonder, has the current government infringed?
A goodly many of them, I think. Your humble Devil is no lawyer, but I reckon that—of the above list—various governments over the last century of so (if not earlier) have infringed 2, 9, 12, 14, 15 and 16, 17, 18 and 19, 20, 27, 28, 30 and 31, 32, 35 (but this is superannuanted rather than infringed), 36 and 40, 38, 42 and, it could be argued, 45.
So, most of them then.