The 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta

As I speak, Her Majesty the Queen is leaving a meadow within sight of Windsor Castle at a place called Runnymede. From ancient times, through the Middle Ages and to the modern era, whenever people have been oppressed by conquerors, rulers and unjust governments, they have fought to live free from the undue interference of the state. However, there is one act that has done more to advance the cause of democracy, freedom and liberty throughout the world than any other.

Eight hundred years ago today, a despotic king affixed his wax seal to a large sheepskin parchment in that meadow by the River Thames, striking a peace bargain with restless, cranky feudal lords. Magna Carta, the great charter, is the wellspring of the fundamental democratic principles that have come to define the polity of Australia and all free nations: limited constitutional government, the rule of law, the primacy of individual liberty and taxation with the consent of the governed. In times of darkness, it has been this axis of enlightenment underpinning Magna Carta that has been heralded by freedom fighters and revolutionaries in their pursuit of liberty. Yet no-one could have foreseen that the events at Runnymede would precipitate legal, cultural and political consequences that would, over the centuries, resonate to the far-flung corners of the old world and the new.

The Magna Carta—more precisely, the 1215 issue, as there were modified versions in 1216, 1217, 1225, 1297 and 1300—was almost entirely a product of the peculiar disputes that had arisen between King John of England and his barons. King John, by all accounts, was a terrible king, a terrible man—numero uno in the bad king stakes, a villainous man who inspired some of the tales of Robin Hood. John had inherited one of the largest territories in the world at the time, comprising England, much of the British Isles and the western parts of France. But through a series of disastrous military campaigns, which severely drained the royal coffers, John lost most of his French territories to King Philip II of France. To finance his war efforts and to maintain his rule against internal dissent, he levied burdensome taxes, stripped lands and property in satisfaction of unpaid debts and imposed harsh penalties. Barons across England and church leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, had become increasingly frustrated with John's rule. They appealed to the king to end his tyrannical ways and honour the traditional liberties owed to them. Naturally, the king stalled, obfuscated and flat-out refused. However, through clever rhetoric from Langton and tactical manoeuvring by the barons, including the capture of the royal capital, London, John's opponents amassed the political momentum needed to force the king to make terms reluctantly in that meadow at Runnymede.

The 1215 Magna Carta's 63 clauses dealt with all manner of topics. They included famous clauses that echo the notions of justice according to the law of the land, due process and trial by jury that exists as the cornerstones of our modern legal system. Clause 38:

No bailiff shall in future put anyone to trial upon his own bare word, without reliable witnesses produced for this purpose.

Clause 39:

No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

And clause 40:

To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.

Clauses 12, 14 and 15 stated that 'No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom' and established a method for seeking that common counsel from the clergy, barons and free landholders.

You can hear the early whispers of parliamentary democracy and the rallying cry of the American revolutionaries 5½ centuries later: no taxation without representation. However, the 1215 Magna Carta largely dealt with issues specific to life in a feudal England: the rights of the church, marriage and inheritance, property and debt disputes, knights' fees, bridges, forests, and fisheries on the Thames. But to oversee John's compliance, it also established a powerful council of 25 barons who were empowered to inflict military retribution upon the king—indeed, a revolutionary concept in the time when kings ruled by divine right. This meant that even the king himself would be made subject to law. However, the 1215 Magna Carta was an abysmal failure in reconstructing English government. It did not itself become law. King John successfully sought recourse from Pope Innocent III, who declared it null and void of all validity forever. The result was war between the king on one hand and the barons and the invading Prince Louis of France on the other hand, a conflict that did not subside until after John's death and his son's, Henry III's, accession to the throne.

Why, then, has Magna Carta—a list of obscure baronial demands written in mediaeval Latin, with limited references to matters of modern relevance—become such a celebrated symbol of liberty? It was not the first such charter granted by an English king agreeing to limit their absolute royal power. For example, the Charter of Liberties granted by Henry I upon his coronation in 1100, a forerunner of Magna Carter, had sought to guarantee certain rights to the church, nobles and other subjects that was almost entirely ignored by the crown. And the 1215 Magna Carta almost became a historical footnote as the war raged across England. Perhaps it is because the story of Magna Carta is the story of humanity's struggle for freedom. It is a story of countless challenges against the oppression of the state and incremental renewal.

For the legacy of Magna Carta is not just about the barons and King John or the documents sealed at Runnymede. It is about what happened next. When that boy king Henry III, through his regent, William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, and the papacy reissued the Magna Carta in 1216, many of the contentious provisions relating to the dispute were deleted. So too were the provisions relating to taxation by consent. But those regarding the rule of law remained. The reissue in 1217, in concert with the Charter of the Forest, again tempered the terms of the charter. But slowly, by the time Henry became of age, the notions underpinning Magna Carta were becoming politically entrenched. The 1297 charter was the first one to be enrolled on the statute books—that is, to become law itself. The reissue in 1300 confirmed the charter's status in the foundations of English common law which would over time be exported across the globe with the rise of the British Empire—imperialism that allowed the principles of enlightenment to be spread to the new world. Just as Magna Carta was refined over time, so too have the principles of liberty for which it was sought. When British monarchs later flouted the law, their subjects' appeal was to Magna Carta and the rights it imbued in all English men and women, even against the crown. When American colonies felt oppression from King George III, not as independence fighters but as British subjects, the appeal was to Magna Carta, equality before the law and a guarantee of life, liberty and property free from state interference. And when the framers of our own Constitution sought to build the Australian nation, the fundamental appeal to constitutional government, democratic liberties and justice were paramount.

A few hundred metres from where I am speaking tonight, Australia has one of the four remaining copies of the 1297 charter displayed for the public here in Parliament House. Australia's charter was originally sent to the county of Surrey, which contains Runnymede. It is hard to imagine a more fitting representation of the heritage of common law liberties that we possess in Australia than this. The challenge for all of us, 800 years after Queen Elizabeth II's ancestor in title sealed that great charter, is not to seek a new charter or fabricate a new declaration of rights but the opposite. We do not need or seek or desire a Magna Carta for the 21st century. Our parliamentary system works very well, thank you very much.

Our challenge is King John—the cornucopia of King John, which in Quisling-like fashion, are a demented anathema to liberty; the new King John who imposed new taxes without mandates, like the Labor Party; the new King John who imposed separate laws for special classes of interest groups, like those who want to bring in sharia law; the new King John who imprisoned individuals and thoughts within politically correct ideological prisons, like those in certain media organisations and Leftists; the new King John who wished to restrict access to resources and limit wealth to a cabal, like those in the Greens. The battle for freedom and liberty in the face of tyranny is a continuous struggle that weaves its way through the course of human history.