In today’s world where political correctness is being pushed ahead of conservative constitutional values and the pillars upon which our world has been built upon are thoroughly disregarded by those on the left, it is important to trace the genesis of the one thing we all wish to protect, liberty.
The very liberty which drives us to hold posters in the streets protesting our rights and the rule of law which protects our freedoms within the courtrooms were not created in the halls of academia but rather in the muddy fields of Runnymede, England in 1215.
In modern times we have all read the inspirational quote – “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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”
This quote, which today influences those who defend liberty and promote the rule of law is actually Clause 39 of the Magna Carta which is one of many clauses which has influenced the US Constitution (6th Amendment) as well as many other Commonwealth Constitutions.
Magna Carta, which means ‘The Great Charter’, is one of the most important documents in history, as it established the principle that everyone is subject to the law, even the king, and guarantees the rights of individuals, the right to justice and the right to a fair trial.
The Magna Carta was sealed in 1215, by King John I, at a meadow some twenty miles west of London along the River Thames called Runnymede after the Barons stood up to some of the most tyrannical rule by any Monarchy.
As Monarch, King John increased scutage and required it more often, required higher returns from the sheriffs in the administration of the shires, and claimed more lands as royal forest land, which allowed him to profit from all administration of justice on those lands. John also administered justice arbitrarily, denying many people access to the courts and selling his justice to others. John also increased the fees noblemen paid to receive their inheritances and deliberately drove others to the brink of financial ruin.
By the year 1215 the barons had had enough. This resistance became a full civil war, with the barons taking control of London and preventing John from having access to his treasury. This civil war culminated at the meadow at Runnymede where John sealed the Great Charter his barons wanted. The goal of this charter was to force specific policy changes on John as well as to place some more general limits on the monarchy and guarantee certain rights that John was obligated to protect.
In his text, “Ancient Constitution in Medieval England” one has to agree with author JC Holt that by 1225 there were two trends of thought which emerged from the Magna Carta, one being that it granted liberties which individuals and communities could use to protect themselves from acts of Government while it also provided the procedures or “modus operandi” in which laws could be made.
While there was no official ancient constitution prior to 1215, the Constitutions of Clarendon from the twelfth century sought to provide the royal dignities provided to the king and his ancestors. However, Magna Carta was drafted to describe the jurisdictional, legal, and financial relationships between lord and vassal.
The “new relationship” is seen in the provision of liberty and protection to communities in the case of the Knight of Lincolnshire in 1226 when they utilized Chapter 35 of the 1225 reissued Charter. The Charter allowed the knights (community) to take action against the King’s agents who may have been exceeding powers, contravening the liberties granted by the King in the Charter.
However within the Charter, there were Chapters such as chapter thirty-six which addressed how courts should be run or thirty-two which dealt with land alienation. These were built on the information collected through public inquires as stipulated in Chapter 48 of the Magna Carta, thereby becoming the vehicle for the creation of legislation.
Therefore we see the Magna Cart became the “giver” of Liberties for individuals to protect themselves from abuse of power while it formed the platform on which laws could be made based on the problems or recommendations of public inquires.
The Magna Carta, however, became more than just a giver of liberties in England but it became a tool of revolution in the colonies of America.
It is believed that those who used the campaign during the battle for American Independence “No Taxation without Representation” was inspired by clause 12 of the Magna Carta which stated – “No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid. In like manner it shall be done concerning aids from the city of London.”
Ironically, the Declaration of Independence used Magna Carta as a model for free men petitioning a despotic government for their God-given rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founding Fathers were reacting to decades of abuses by the British Parliament, which colonists believed had betrayed the “higher law” of Magna Carta.
Therefore today whether it is the American Constitution, the protester on the street or the Lawyer in the Courtroom demanding a habeas corpus writ, it all started in the muddy fields of Runnymede.
However, the English roots of Liberty goes even further than the rule of law but actually into the system which the law is undertaken. Today, the United States and many Commonwealth nations have Common Law systems where the role of Judicial Precedent or common law forms the basis of decision making.
It is quite important to understand where this entire system came from.
In 1066 most areas within England had small courts of their own which operated by rules of their own. However, when William the Conqueror became the Monarch of England, he began the concept of the King’s Court, where he and his advisors travelled around England to listen and adjudicate on cases.
However, in 1154 King Henry II took over as England’s Monarch and in an attempt to bring some form of stability across the country instituted the “Travelling Justices” which saw Judges from the King’s Bench travelling throughout England to decide on cases based on the COMMON DECISIONS decided on cases within London, therefore setting the foundation for what we now call Judicial Precedent.
Today it can surely be said that the major roots of Liberty can be traced back to England.