- much more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magna_Carta
The 1215 Charter required King John of England to proclaim certain liberties, and accept that his will was not arbitrary, for example by explicitly accepting that no "freeman" (in the sense of non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land, a right which is still in existence today.
Magna Carta was the first document forced onto an English King by a group of his subjects (the barons) in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their privileges. It was preceded and directly influenced by the 1100 Charter of Liberties, when King Henry I had specified particular areas where his powers would be limited.
Despite its recognised importance, by the second half of the 19th century nearly all of its clauses had been repealed in their original form. Three clauses remain part of the law of England and Wales, however, and it is generally considered part of the uncodified constitution. Lord Denning described it as "the greatest constitutional document of all times - the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot". In a 2005 speech, Lord Woolf described it as "first of a series of instruments that now are recognised as having a special constitutional status", the others being the Habeas Corpus Act, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement.
The charter was an important part of the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in the English speaking world, although it was "far from unique, either in content or form". In practice, Magna Carta in the medieval period did not in general limit the power of kings, but by the time of the English Civil War it had become an important symbol for those who wished to show that the King was bound by the law. It influenced the early settlers in New England and inspired later constitutional documents, including the United States Constitution.
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King John was forced by the barons to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede, a meadow along the Thames River upstream from London. The barons, the church and the commoners had had enough of tyranny since the murder of beloved Archbishop Becket. After signing the document, King John and the Pope immediately denounced it, but both died in 1216. Magna Carta survived many attempts at revocation. The “due process” clause quoted at the beginning of this post is still in effect.
A very brief summary of these events and attitudes is demonstrated in this poem:
What Say the Reeds at Runnymede?
A Poem Commemorating the signing of Magna Carta
Runnymede, Surrey, June 15, 1215
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:
'You musn't sell, delay, deny,
A freeman's right or liberty.
It wakes the stubborn Englishry,
We saw 'em roused at Runnymede!
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine,
The curt uncompromising "Sign!'
They settled John at Runnymede.
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.'
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the moods of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!
Full text of Magna Carta at http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/magna2.html
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Footnote #1: It is commonly prated by modern televangelists in the United States that the nation is of Christian origin and that the founding fathers were devout Christians. Therefore, separation of church and state is a synthetic thing, brought about by merchant and intellectual interests, to fracture the Christian nature of the nation and weaken it. This is an utter lie. Separation of church and state was devised by the church itself to correctly protect its indepenence from the state. Magna Carta begins and ends with strong references to the independence of the church, “forever.”
Footnote #2: Since Karl Marx, it is often misunderstood that public actions invariably take place to protect the class of the public figure advocating a certain policy. Thus public life and politics represent unending class warfare. The great achievement of due process, which necessarily involved an attack on the divine right of kings, was overwhelmingly supported by all classes of England, from the Norman barons to humble serfs. Therefore, obviously, there is more to politics than class struggle or deconstruction of motives.
Footnote #3: The whisper wakes, the shudder plays. The Sea of Quiddity is again disturbed.
Footnote #4: The English have not lost a battle with outsiders on their own island since limiting the authority of their government itself. Magna Carta is nearly 800 years old, and the Charter of Liberties is over 900 years old. Perhaps the surest way to live in peace, and to win the few wars it is necessary to fight, is to always limit central governmental power and authority while strictly maintaining due process.