Along the peaceful meadows of the River Thames in Surrey, and only a few minutes’ walk from where the John F Kennedy Memorial stands today, a hostile political dispute was settled 801 years ago.
Inked with a mix of oak-gall sap and lamp black, Magna Carta, the most significant and arguably the most famous constitutional piece was sealed by one of the feeblest rulers in English history.
King John’s reign had been simply disastrous. He slapped hefty taxes to fund wars he himself caused and eventually lost. He imprisoned his former wife and murdered his nephew. He fell out with the pope and was excommunicated.
Fed up with his despotic, voracious acts, his barons decided to show him how his power-abusing practices had to stop. Their discontent had been bubbling up for three years. Now, it was ready to burst into the open.
Having gathered momentum through months of intense negotiations, they put together a raft of demands for more liberties and brought them to the negotiating table in Runnymede on 15 June 1215. King John, or ”Soft-sword” as he was known, eventually authorised the charter. Peace was declared on 19 June.
But the long-term survival of this landmark truce wasn’t all down to the king or his barons. The four copies that still exist after eight centuries are all in Latin- an indicator that the church’s role in the engrossing of the Charter of Runnymede wasn’t a minor one.
The church wanted to make sure that the king had no chance to circumvent the treaty. By distributing as many copies as they could, Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals played a massive role in turning King John’s concessions into a documented acknowledgment of people’s rights and duties.
The Lincoln’s and Salisbury’s own copies, the only outside the British Library, are believed to have been written by scribes from the Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals who were present in Runnymede at that time. The church also demanded that a copy of Magna Carta be displayed on the door of every major monastery and cathedral.
The constitutional parchment outlived the king, whose death in 1216 did its revival a favour. He had repudiated the charter and sparked the First Barons’ War. After John, the document proved contemporaneous that its fundamental provisions, be them social, religious or economic, were reissued three times in the following decade.
Ten years after the journey to Runnymede, dozens of bishops, abbots, earls, magnates and ministers were headed by Archbishop Stephen Langton; the same cardinal who was at the forefront of the first settlement. The aim was to re-establish the principles of the agreement.
Langton couldn’t be more delighted to hear John’s son, 18-year-old King Henry III, pacify tempers upon receiving the updated charter. His acceptance of the terms (in a new updated and abridged 37-clause version) was far less troublesome than his father’s. Henry declared ‘’We have indeed sworn to observe these liberties, and what we have sworn to we are bound to abide by.’’
This charter, however, didn’t bring about any radical changes, it rather reaffirmed and granted liberties of the subject. It also re-established the legal yardstick; even kings were under the law.
The next ruler, Edward I, was no different in the sense that he had to reissue the document under pressure. But what changed the statue of the Magna Carta forever was that it finally became a law. This meant that it was confirmed in Parliament and was copied into the statue rolls.
The charter, from that medieval moment, was formidably placed in the politics of England. Any slight amendment would require the consent of legislators. This inspired reformists, revolutionaries and independence advocates.
The survival of the manuscript might be explained by its connection to the ‘now’. Clauses 38, 39 and 40 of the 1215 version make it clear that freedom is something so sacrosanct that it can’t be taken unless by lawful means. This has established a concept of liberty cherished down the years.
But perhaps nothing manifests the longevity of this widely-accepted document than its adoption beyond British waters. The Magna Carta constantly contributed to landmark documents around the world. From the US Bill of Rights to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, England, which itself has no constitution, can boast giving the world something to seek guidance from whenever freedom was at stake.