Today, America bids farewell to the Magna Carta. The 800-year old document returns home to Lincolnshire, England, after six months in America. It landed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in July, and spent the past few months at the Library of Congress.
This copy of the Magna Carta visited here once before when England asked the United States to safeguard it from Nazi bombs. But we should not expect to see the Lincoln Magna Carta on these shores again. It is one of only four surviving copies of the 1215 charter, and it shows its 800 years of age. The parchment will be preserved in a newly constructed, high-tech, protective case in Lincoln Castle.
Much has been written about Magna Carta’s current visit to America, particularly in relation to the inchoate liberties it birthed. Rightly so. The Magna Carta’s importance cannot be understated. It is font of the liberties we enjoy today.
After tolerating one outrage after another by King John, barons in league with English church officials rebelled. They renounced their allegiance to the king, who foolishly seized their property. The King was quickly overwhelmed, with the barons taking London.
At Runymede in June 1215, King John signed, in effect, a treaty with his own people. The Magna Carta curbed the authority of the king, offering protections to the church and the rights of free men. In return for renewing their oaths to the King, he was forced to cede some power. His power over the pockets and persons of freemen was reduced. The Barons could check the king’s authority to enact certain types of tax. King John also recognized the “ancient liberties” of some inhabitants. Jailing them willy-nilly in perpetuity was expressly disallowed.
“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised [dispossessed] of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land.”
Additionally, the Magna Carta was a key moment in the advancement of civilization. The Great Charter helped move the accepted basis for human governance further away from rule by might to rule by law. Words on paper, not arms, would structure a polity. Humanity could flourish under the stability and liberty afforded by shared agreements about the basic rules of social life.
Politics, the ancient Greeks noted, was a means of moving fights from the streets into a forum. Lay down arms, and use words to settle conflicts. Written agreements on power-sharing naturally followed from this notion. But these ancient treaties rarely had lasting power. Inevitably, one party to the agreement would see advantage in reneging, and war would return.
The term “charter” is derived from the ancient Latin “charta” or, perhaps, the ancient Greek “chartês,” both of which mean “paper.” In the 1200s, charters were a common legal instrument in England. They had been in use since 600 AD, and they tended to deal with mundane property matters. For example, a 679 AD charter from Hlothhere King of the Men of Kent to Beorhtweald, the Abbot of Reculver, declares:
“In the name of our Lord, Our Savior Jesus Christ, I, Hlothhere, King of the men dwelling in Kent, for the cure of my soul give land in ‘Thanet’ which is called ‘West of the stream,’ to you, Beortwheald, and to your monastery, fields, pastures, marshes, little woods, springs, fish ponds, [M]ay you hold, possess, and your successors defend in perpetuity .... [T]his little charter of donation remaining nonetheless in its own effect .... Let it be contradicted by no man, which God forbid, neither by me nor my relations nor by others.”
King John himself broke his word soon after putting his seal on the Magna Carta. It was a huge mistake, but a fortunate one for posterity. The outrage was immediate, and subsequent kings understood that maintaining peace required reaffirming the charter. Thus, what began as a written agreement between warring equals was progressively elevated to a higher authority held sacred. Magna Carta—the Great Charter.
This conception of a piece of paper as expressing higher law that binds both rulers and the people is a philosophical assumption undergirding American and modern Western constitutions generally.