June 15 marks the 800th anniversary of the ratification of the first version of Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede… although the version that is actually still on the statute books is the edition of 1225, and one of the main reasons why it became so significant is that it was included in Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England. Magna Carta does not even appear in Shakespeare’s play King John. It deals far more with family relations than any political principles. These and other things we learned today at “What’s so Great about the Great Charter,” hosted by UGA and including two regulars from the Georgia Medievalists’ Group, Cynthia Camp and Wendy Turner.
Another GMG regular, Andrew Reeves, writes on Facebook:
800 years ago, a king signed a peace deal with some rebel barons. Among the many provisions of that peace deal: No levying taxation without the consent of the community of the realm. A free man shall not be imprisoned, dispossessed, or otherwise punished without the judgment of his peers.
Does it matter that the barons of Runnymede weren’t thinking in the long run and that most of Magna Carta was a peace treaty that didn’t actually end the war? No, not really, because 800 years later throughout the common-law world, we hold that a trial by a jury of one’s peers is a key part of the judicial process and that taxation cannot be levied without the consent of the legislature.
Not bad, Cardinal Langton, not bad at all…
“So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
800 years ago, a theology professor turned bishop turned rebel leader, one Stephen Langton, took these words to heart when drafting Magna Carta and its principle that no king could levy taxes without the consent of the community of the realm.
Four centuries later, puritan churchmen sitting in their kingdom’s parliament took those same words to heart when they demanded that their king abide by the principle of no taxation without representation.
Another century and a half later, a collection of American statesmen drew on that same tradition when demanding that their king honor their rights as Englishmen.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Happy 800th, Magna Carta!
See also an article at Smithsonian Magazine: “How Magna Carta Went Viral: In a world before the printing press, how did news of the famous document make the rounds?”