Magna Carta 800th Anniversary | Celebrating 800 years of democracy
There are many events being held to remember that important date:
Events | Magna Carta Trust 800th Anniversary | Celebrating 800 years of democracy
One of which will be this week at Kennaway House:
Latest News - Kennaway House
Most see the signing as a 'good thing':
Magna Carta anniversary: Five ways to celebrate - UK - Travel - The Independent
1066 and All That - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
1066 and All That - Conservapedia
John; An Awful King
WHEN John came to the throne he lost his temper and flung himself on the floor, foaming at the mouth and biting the rushes. He was thus a Bad King. Indeed, he had begun badly as a Bad Prince, having attempted to answer the Irish Question* by pulling the beards of the aged Irish chiefs, which was a Bad Thing and the wrong answer.
*N.B. - The Irish Question at this time consisted of:
(1) Some Norman Barons, who lived in a Pail (near Dublin),
(2) The natives and Irish Chieftains, who were beyond the Pail, living in bogs, beards, etc.
THERE also happened in this reign the memorable Charta, known as Magna Charter on account of the Latin Magna (great) and Charter (a Charter); this was the first of the famous Chartas and Gartas of the Reahn and was invented by the Barons on a desert island in the Thames called Ganymede. By congregating there, armed to the teeth, the Barons compelled John to sign the Magna Charter, which said:
1. That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason - (except the Common People).
2. That everyone should be free - (except the Common People).
3. That everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the Realm - (except the Common People).
4. That the Courts should be stationary, instead of following a very tiresome medieval official known as the King's Person all over the country.
5. That 'no person should be fined to his utter ruin' - (except the King's Person).
6. That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.
Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).
After this King John hadn't a leg to stand on and was therefore known as 'John Lackshanks'.
Final Acts of Misgovernment
John finally demonstrated his utter incompetence by losing the Crown and all his clothes in the wash and then dying of a surfeit of peaches and no cider; thus his awful reign came to an end.
W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman. 1066 and All That. Chapters 16-22
In an article last year, the Telegraph was a little more circumspect:
Magna Carta: Rallying cry for justice, or toffs’ tantrum?
To celebrate its up-coming 800th anniversary, a copy of Magna Carta will be displayed at St Albans Cathedral. Harry Mount reads the small print
You can forgive David Cameron for failing to define Magna Carta on the Late Show with David Letterman last year.
The Latin translation of the words – “Great Charter” – is the easy bit. The trickier thing is to work out what the 1215 document really signified.
Was it a rallying cry for justice, freedom and the rule of law, echoing down the ages, across the globe? Or was it just the squealing of the grandest toffs in the land, incensed at a king who was bleeding their coffers dry?
The answer is, a bit of both. As the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta approaches, you can decide for yourself, as the four original copies are exposed as never before.
Two are in the British Library, the third is at Salisbury Cathedral. Today , the fourth – Lincoln Cathedral’s original – will go on show in St Albans Cathedral, where the barons first met King John’s representative, probably on August 4 1213 – 800 years ago tomorrow. It will then go to Bury St Edmunds, and on to the Law Library of Congress in Washington.
Magna Carta was revered by the American Founding Fathers in the 18th century, who saw it as a defining document of resistance against an overbearing king. You will need medieval Latin to read Magna Carta in the original, in fading brown ink on parchment. But even non-Latinists can make out the most heart-stirring lines, like “Data per manum nostram in prato quod vocatur Ronimed inter Windlesoram et Stanes, quinto decimo die Junii, anno regni nostri decimo septimo.”
Those are the last words of Magna Carta, stamped with the seal of King John – “Given by our hand in the meadow called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the 15th day of June, in the 17th year of our reign.”
The words were largely drafted, not by the king and the barons, but by chancery clerks toiling away far from the historic scene in Surrey that June day. And, if you look closely at those words, in English or Latin, you’ll see that the charter is dominated by contemporary disputes between the barons and the king, with not much left over for timeless cries for freedom and justice.
Some of the clauses – the original document was divided into 63 clauses in 1759 – are surprisingly prosaic: “All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.”
Many other clauses concentrate on lifting the king’s burden of taxation on the barons. Some clauses are pretty outrageous by modern standards: “If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands.”
To work out what the point of Magna Carta was, you must look at the history immediately preceding it. That history is largely about John tapping the barons for the cash and soldiers needed to win back Normandy.
“Magna Carta was the first programme of reform in English history,” says David Horspool, historian and author of The English Rebel – One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties. “But it wasn’t the culmination of decades of struggle and debate, it was the by-product of a more venal agenda, controlled for the most part by men who put their own welfare some way ahead of abstract principle. What exhausted the barons’ patience wasn’t losing Normandy but trying to get it back. To do that, John needed the military support of his chief subjects, and he needed money.”
On two occasions John had failed to raise expeditions to take back Normandy, because the barons refused to play ball. They had had enough of a king who demanded much more of them than his predecessors. John doubled the rate of scutage – shield money, paid instead of military service. On other occasions, John fined them arbitrarily to “obtain the king’s good will”.
Matters came to a head in May 1214, when the king, fighting in France, demanded more scutage, and the barons refused to pay, especially the ones in the north. The rebel barons can claim to be the first named political party in English history, popularly named “the Northerners” – as opposed to “the Army of God”, which is what they preferred to call themselves.
At this point, something in John gave way. Rather than declaring war on the barons, he resorted to negotiation. At first, he considered regranting an old charter, sealed by his grandfather, Henry I, on his coronation in 1100.
John promised he would give a definite answer on regranting it by the Sunday after Easter, 1215. When he missed the deadline, the negotiations continued, with Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as intermediary.
The king dithered so much that the barons withdrew their fealty – or their loyalty – from him. Forty rebel barons were so angry that they occupied London in protest. Drawn into further negotiations, the two parties drew up a document, the Articles of the Barons. This was sealed by the king on June 15 – Magna Carta was born.
With that kind of build-up, you can see why so much of Magna Carta is about taxes. The charter’s second clause limits the money paid to the king out of inheritances to “£100 for a whole barony…100s, at most, for a whole knight’s fee”.
Another clause strictly forbids the king’s arbitrary fines: “All fines made with us unjustly and against the law of the land and all amercements imposed unjustly and against the law of the land, shall be entirely remitted.”
Still, in among the tax-cutting pleas, there are some unprecedented, selfless calls for legal and social reform. One much-repeated clause reads: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”
Other clauses refer to “freemen” – a class considerably below the barons. The opening clause reads: “We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs for ever, these Liberties underwritten, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever.”
In one clause – again, about the levying of fines – there is even a reference to villeins, peasants legally tied to the lord of the manor, who were no more than serfs. It is these few altruistic clauses that resonated down the centuries, that meant Magna Carta was repeatedly confirmed by monarchs for the next two centuries.
But Magna Carta may have been lost in the mists of time if John hadn’t died of dysentery in October 1216, supposedly after a blowout feast. John in fact rejected Magna Carta, principally because of its last clause, giving the barons a licence to rebel if the king reneged on the deal. It was his son, the nine-year-old Henry III, who went along with Magna Carta in a bid to shore up his support.
It was a close-run thing, and a long time before Magna Carta was hailed as the miraculous document of today. In many ways, W C Sellar and R J Yeatman came closest to the truth in their comedy classic, 1066 and all That — “Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).”
As you would expect from commentator Noam Chomsky, the critique can go much deeper:
How the Magna Carta became a Minor Carta, part 1 | Noam Chomsky | Comment is free | The Guardian; How the Magna Carta became a Minor Carta, part 2 | Noam Chomsky | Comment is free | The Guardian
This is from the Nation magazine:
Magna Carta Messed Up the World, Here’s How to Fix It
March 23, 2015 | This article appeared in the April 6, 2015 edition of The Nation.
This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
In a few months, we will be commemorating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta—commemorating, but not celebrating; rather, mourning the blows it has suffered.
The first authoritative scholarly edition of Magna Carta was published by the eminent jurist William Blackstone in 1759. It was no easy task. As he wrote, “the body of the charter has been unfortunately gnawn by rats”—a comment that carries grim symbolism today, as we take up the task the rats left unfinished.
Blackstone’s edition actually includes two charters: the Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest. The former is generally regarded as the foundation of Anglo-American law—in Winston Churchill’s words, referring to its reaffirmation by Parliament in 1628, “the charter of every self-respecting man at any time in any land.” The Great Charter held that “No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned,” or otherwise harmed, “except by the lawful judgment of his equals and according to the law of the land,” the essential sense of the doctrine of “presumption of innocence.”
To be sure, the reach of the charter was limited. Nevertheless, as Eric Kasper observes in a scholarly review, “What began as a relatively small check on the arbitrary power of King John eventually led to succeeding generations finding ever more rights in Magna Carta and Article 39. In this sense, Magna Carta is a key point in a long development of the protection of rights against arbitrary executive power.”
Crossing the Atlantic, the Great Charter was enshrined in the US Constitution as the promise that “no person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.”
The wording seems expansive, but that is misleading. Excluded were “unpeople” (to borrow Orwell’s useful concept), among them Native Americans, slaves and women, who under the British common law adopted by the founders were the property of their fathers, handed over to husbands. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1975 that women gained the right to serve on juries in all fifty states.
The Fourteenth Amendment applied the “due process” provisions to states. The intent was to include freed slaves in the category of persons, but the effect was different. Within a few years, slaves who had technically been freed were delivered to a regime of criminalization of black life that amounted to “slavery by another name,” to quote the title of Douglas Blackmon’s evocative account of this crime, which is being re-enacted today. Instead, almost all of the actual court cases invoking the Fourteenth Amendment had to do with the rights of corporations. Today, these legal fictions—created and sustained by state power—have rights well beyond those of flesh-and-blood persons, not only by virtue of their wealth, immortality and limited liability, but also thanks to the mislabeled “free-trade” agreements, which grant them unprecedented rights unavailable to humans.
The constitutional lawyer in the White House has introduced further modifications. His Justice Department explained that “due process of law”—at least where “terrorism offenses” are concerned—is satisfied by internal deliberations within the executive branch. King John would have nodded in approval. The term “guilty” has also been given a refined interpretation: it now means “targeted for assassination by the White House.” Furthermore, the burden of proof has been shifted to those already assassinated by executive whim. As The New York Timesreported, “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties [that] in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” The guiding principles are clear: force reigns supreme; “law” and “justice” and other frivolities can be left to sentimentalists.
Problems do arise, however, when a candidate for genuine personhood is targeted. The issue arose after the murder of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was accused of inciting jihad in speech and writing as well as unspecified actions. A New York Times headline captured the general elite reaction when he was assassinated: As the West Celebrates a Cleric’s Death, the Mideast Shrugs. Some eyebrows were raised because Awlaki was an American citizen. But even these doubts were quickly stilled.
Let us now put the sad relics of the Great Charter aside and turn to the Magna Carta’s companion, the Charter of the Forest, which was issued in 1217. Its significance is perhaps even more pertinent today. As explained by Peter Linebaugh in his richly documented and stimulating history of Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest called for protection of the commons from external power. The commons were the source of sustenance for the general population: food, fuel, construction materials, a form of welfare, whatever was essential for life.
In thirteenth-century England, the forest was no primitive wilderness. It had been carefully nurtured by its users over generations, its riches available to all. The great British social historian R. H. Tawney wrote that the commons were used by country people who lacked arable land. The maintenance of this “open field system of agriculture…reposed upon a common custom and tradition, not upon documentary records capable of precise construction. Its boundaries were often rather a question of the degree of conviction with which ancient inhabitants could be induced to affirm them, than visible to the mere eye of sense”—features of traditional societies worldwide to the present day.
By the eighteenth century, the charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and moral culture. As Linebaugh puts it, “The Forest Charter was forgotten or consigned to the gothic past.” With the commons no longer protected for cooperative nurturing and use, the rights of the common people were restricted to what could not be privatized—a category that continues to shrink, to virtual invisibility.
Capitalist development brought with it a radical revision not only of how the commons are treated, but also of how they are conceived. The prevailing view today is captured by Garrett Hardin’s influential argument that “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” This is the famous “tragedy of the commons”: that what is not owned will be destroyed by individual avarice. A more technical formulation is given in economist Mancur Olson’s conclusion that “unless the number of individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.” Accordingly, unless the commons are handed over to private ownership, brutal state power must be invoked to save them from destruction. This conclusion is plausible—if we understand “rationality” to entail a fanatic dedication to the individual maximization of short-term material gain.
These forecasts have received some challenge. The late Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her work showing the superiority of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes and groundwater basins. The historical review in her study, Governing the Commons, ignores the Charter of the Forest and the practice over centuries of nurturing the commons, but Ostrom did conclude that the success stories she’d investigated might at least “shatter the convictions of many policy analysts that the only way to solve [common-pool resource] problems is for external authorities to impose full private property rights or centralized regulation.”
* * *
As we now understand all too well, it is what is privately owned, not what is held in common, that faces destruction by avarice, bringing the rest of us down with it. Hardly a day passes without more confirmation of this fact. As hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of Manhattan on September 21 to warn of the dire threat of the ongoing ecological destruction of the commons, The New York Times reported that “global emissions of greenhouse gases jumped 2.3 percent in 2013 to record levels,” while in the United States, emissions rose 2.9 percent, reversing a recent decline. August 2014 was reported to be the hottest on record, and JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association predicted that the number of 90-degree-plus days in New York could triple in three decades, with much more severe effects in warmer climates.
It is well understood that most of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves must remain in the ground if an environmental disaster for humankind is to be averted, but under the logic of state-supported capitalist institutions, the private owners of those reserves are racing to exploit them to the fullest. Chevron abandoned a small renewable-energy program because its profits are far greater from fossil fuels. And as Bloomberg Businessweek reports, ExxonMobil announced “that its laserlike focus on fossil fuels is a sound strategy, regardless of climate change.” This is all in accord with the capitalist doctrine of “rationality.”
A small part of the remaining commons is federal land. Despite the complaints of the energy lobbies, the amount of crude oil produced from onshore federal lands in 2013 was the highest in over a decade, according to the Interior Department, and it has expanded steadily under the Obama administration. The business pages of newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are exultant about “the boom in American energy production,” which shows “no signs of slowing down, keeping the market flush with crude and gasoline prices low.” Predictions are that the United States will “add a million more barrels of oil in daily production over the next year,” while also “expanding its exports of refined products like gasoline and diesel.” One dark cloud is perceived, however: maximizing production “might have a catastrophic effect” in “the creation of a major glut.” And with climate-change denier James Inhofe now chairing the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and others like him in positions of power, we can expect even more wonderful news for our grandchildren.
Despite these long odds, the participants in the People’s Climate March are not alone. There is no slight irony in the fact that their major allies throughout the world are the surviving indigenous communities that have upheld their own versions of the Charter of the Forest. In Canada, the Gitxaala First Nation is filing a lawsuit opposing a tar-sands pipeline passing through its territory, relying on recent high-court rulings on indigenous rights. In Ecuador, the large indigenous community played an essential part in the government’s offer to keep some of its oil in the ground, where it should be, if the rich countries would compensate Ecuador for a fraction of the lost profits. (The offer was refused.) The one country governed by an indigenous majority, Bolivia, held a World People’s Conference in 2010, with 35,000 participants from 140 countries. It produced a People’s Agreement calling for sharp reductions in emissions, as well as a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth. These are key demands of indigenous communities all over the world.
So, as we commemorate the two charters after 800 years, all of this gives us ample reason for serious reflection—and for determined action.
March 23, 2015 | This article appeared in the April 6, 2015 edition of The Nation.
Magna Carta Messed Up the World, Here’s How to Fix It | The Nation