Let’s go back in time to medieval England. The year is 1215. The ruler is king John. Many citizens were not too fond of the king. In fact, they believed he was one of the worst kings to ever set foot on a throne, if not the worst. He committed questionable acts such as imprisoning his wife, starving his opponents to death, touching the beards of Irish chiefs, and allegedly executed his own nephew. He also imposed heavy taxes on his barons which were used to pay for expensive foreign wars and other goods that were deemed unnecessary by the people. If these people refused to pay they would suffer cruel punishments such as getting their property seized. This infuriated the people. They did not believe it to be fair that they had to abide by the law while the king does otherwise. Barons and people of England demanded that King John obey the law. He refused.
Following King Johns decision, the kings barons decided to take matters into their own hands and captured London, forcing King John into negotiation. Both sides met in Runnymede where the Magna Carta was officially documented by King John, his barons, and Archbishop Stephen Langton.
Succeeding the passing of Archbishop Walter in the year 1205, there was a disagreement over who should be the next in line to take over. Eventually an agreement was made between the monks of the church and the king and the man they chose was Stephen Langton. He was elected Archbishop in 1206, but did not make an appearance until 1213 due to the fact that King John refused to accept him. Although Langton might not have had the biggest role in creating the Magna Carta, he was still a leading mediator and had some influence within the clauses. One example being clause one which states that the english church shall be free and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.This without a question conveys Langtons influence because of the fact that he was such a large part of the church’s voice and he was working to acquire the church more benefits and rights.
Initially, when the document was first created there were 63 clauses that everyone was subject to abide by. The first clause, as already stated, freed the church of any restrictions imposed on them previously. This was significant because before this document was established, people who belonged to the church did not have the voice they felt they deserved and felt as if their rights were being infringed on due to the fact that they could not say or move as freely as they wanted. Clause two ensured that the heir of a land owner that passes away would be owed full relief as long as they are of age to do so. This clause is significant due to the fact that it allows family possessions to be passed down from generation to generation. Without this clause, all property owned previously would most likely belong to the government following a death. Another clause that stands out is clause 10. It states that
If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from jews dies before the money is paid back, his or her heir shall pay no interest on the debt, meaning that the person next in line who has to repay the debt will not have to pay more than what was owed.
This clause is significant because it would be deemed unfair if an individual who had nothing to due with the original situation were to get stuck with the short end of the stick. Also, another important clause that stands out is 16. It states that no man shall be forced to perform more service for a knight’s fee than what is due from them. Meaning that no individual can be forced to perform a service that they were not initially asked to perform. This clause is significant because it does not allow people who hold more power than the average citizen to abuse it. Previously, people would be treated unfairly by the king and his people due to lack of power, voice, and rights. This clause officially eliminated that for good. Another clause that is meaningful is clause 20. It states that For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. This law is essentially parallel to what society knows today as the cruel and unusual punishment law. In other words, whatever crime man has done, he should only face repercussions equivalent to the crime he committed. For example, a thief who takes a candy bar should not be punishable by death and a man who brutally murdered 4 individuals should not be granted a second chance at life. Out of all 63 clauses, clause 39 is perhaps the most eminent of them all. It states that 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 judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. This law is one of the most prominent because it gave all free men the right to justice and a fair trial.
The Magna Carta has had a substantial influence on the development of democracy. In fact the document is often regarded as the foundation of democracy. There are many examples of the Magna Carta’s long term impact and influence on the nation. For example, numerous edited versions of the Magna Carta were distributed by King Henry III and the 1225 document was entered on the statute roll in the late 13th century. Another prime example of influence is in the 17th century, King Charles opposition used the Magna Carta in order to govern the arbitrary use of royal authority. In addition, the 1225 version of the document had been given solely in return for a payment of tax by the commonwealth which then enabled the first summons of Parliament in 1265 in order to approve the granting of taxation. Lastly, a final example is in 1649 when King Charles was put on trial there was a dispute that the Kings attempt to delay the proceedings violated the clause of Magna Carta which constrains the delay of justice.
However, although being one of the most famous present documents in the world, the Magna Carta does not stand well with modern day interpretation due to the fact that only 3 clauses remain in today’s law, many of the clauses are very broad and difficult to interpret, and many of the laws would have already been established whether the Magna Carta was written or not. The Magna Carta is looked at more as a historical foundation that helped evolve what we call our law system today, but to say that it is significant to our modern law is a bit of a stretch. Judges typically do not enforce the Magna Carta. One reason being that the document is way too broad to be applied by the courts and judges cannot interpret them. One example of the Magna Carta being too broad is in clause 39 which reads,No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or disseised of his freehold, 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. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.
These seem like fair propositions, but they still do not stand well to current concepts on interpretation. For example, the second word in the first line is freeman. But does this include women as well? The only reason it does include women is because of the Interpretation Act of 1978 which is not apart of the Magna Carta. Also, historians state a free man could marry and maneuver as he pleased, but what about the rural peasants and the agricultural laborers bound under the feudal system who need permission for everything? Luckily the Human Rights Act of 1988 clarifies that all legislation must be compatible to all people.
Regardless, The Magna Carta has earned an elite position as the cornerstone of English liberties even though a majority of its clauses have now been abolished, or in other cases trumped by other pieces of legislation such as the Human Rights Act. Magna Carta still holds great symbolic power as the original defence against arbitrary and unpleasant rulers, and as a voucher of individual liberties.