Magna Carta Day (15 June)
The Magna Carta story of 1215 is dramatic, with its dissenting Barons, overbearing Pope, double-dealing King and, finally, wise boy Monarch. Good really does win out in this one. So why not indeed have June 15, the actual date of the signing of the Charter, as a Bank Holiday to celebrate ‘Britishness’? Inviting everyone to remember how their liberty was first won – whilst also enjoying a ‘free’ day – could do a lot for democratic involvement in these apparently non-political times.
Today is Magna Carta Day. On June 15th 1215, the Magna Carta was signed by King John as a way of resolving a dispute between his Barons and himself.
I’m no historian, but I think we can all grasp the essentials of this occasion, why it was so momentous. For the first time ever (in English history at least?) a limit was put on the power of the King. At that time, when the authority of the Monarch was perceived as absolute and God-given, this must have seemed an outrageously daring, if not downright dangerous, thing to do. (What if God had objected?)
Indeed, the Pope (Innocent III) – who had actually also been in dispute with John about who could tell whom what to do – was deeply affronted by the idea of regal power being limited (except by the Pope himself as God’s representative on earth) and immediately ‘released’ John from his agreement with the Barons, saying that the deal was ‘shaming and demeaning’. This suited John very well, as he had had no intention of observing the agreement, especially as it had been forced upon him by the Barons – who, as relative moderates not wishing to embark on civil war, had taken London by force on June 10th in order to ensure that John had no option but to sign.
Like some public documents in our much more immediate past, the real devil was in the detail of particular clauses of the Magna Carta. One really big issue was Clause 61, in which the concept of distraint was for the first time applied to the King.
The ‘agreement’ was that if 25 Barons, having renewed their oath of fealty, later decided it was imperative to overrule the King, they could do so if necessary by force, seizing his castles and possessions if need be. Distraint was not a new idea, but applying it to the King certainly was!
Another Clause, 39, was also a breakthrough for the idea that the law stood above anyone’s individual authority, even the King’s. It required that 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.
With rules like this, it was little wonder that John felt no compunction about renouncing the Magna Carta as soon as his Barons had left London. And thus commenced the First Barons’ War. But for once in those troubled times things worked out for the better. Just a year later John was unfortunate enough to die, on 18 October 1216, in the middle of his war, simply from dysentery.
Henry III takes over at age nine
Thus it came about that John’s son Henry was crowned King, aged just nine. The royalists believed correctly that Henry, still a child, would be a more acceptable as Monarch than had his father, and that the war would then cease.
Once Henry had been crowned a weakened version of the Magna Carta was re-issued by his regent, minus Clause 61 and some others; and in 1225, as soon as he came of age, Henry himself reissued it in a generally similar abbreviated form.
And finally, in another stroke of good fortune for those who followed, Henry was the longest-serving English Monarch of the Mediaeval period, so that by the time he died, in 1272, the Magna Carta had become firmly established in legal precedent.
A great story
Here is by any standards a dramatic tale – a staged challenge to the highest authority in the land, and indeed to that of the Pope himself; a kidnapping and enforced treaty; immediate reneging on the deal; and salvation through the crowning of a boy king, who in his adulthood shows himself to be fair and strategically wise in his judgement. All with a bit, but not by the standards of the day really an excess, of swashbuckling action and contest.
What more could any History, Politics or Civics teacher ask for?
A Bank Holiday on 15 June?
A recent survey showed that large numbers of people think we in Britain should have an extra Bank Holiday – and that the best day to have it would be Magna Carta Day, 15 June. This perhaps indicates a greater degree of political consciousness than some give us all credit for, and it would, it has been suggested, provide us an excellent opportunity to celebrate ‘Britishness’.
That date’s pretty close to our last Bank Holiday, at the end of May (and it still leaves a yawning gap in the grim stretch between September and Christmas), but this suggestion has a point. The story of King John the Bad, the Good Barons and the Wise Boy Monarch is stirring stuff, and if it could capture the imagination of British citizens of all ages and beliefs, that’s a big plus.
The more we can celebrate sound politics, democracy and fairness as the overt hallmarks of our nation, the better.