Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Mythology of Magna Carta

The Mythology of Magna Carta


      Last year there are being held a series of events commemorating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the “Great Charter” imposed on “Bad” King John in 1215; that makes today the 801st anniversary (yeah, that just does not sound as good)  of its signing.  Last year’s events included a display of the Magna Carta at the Kentucky State Fair, a presentation supported by both the Kentucky Bar Association and the Louisville Bar Association.

      June 15 is celebrated for the signing of Magna Carta by King John and his leading nobles, all at Runnymede.  From there the foundation of Magna Carta is espoused as a foundational document in the development of the rule of law.  The only problem is that the Magna Carta of June, 1215 was a dead letter.  John repudiated the charter, and that repudiation was affirmed by Pope Innocent III.

      John's after-the-fact rejection of Magna Carta precipitated the First Barons War, a contest in which a group of disaffected nobles actually aligned themselves with the King of France. Had history turned out only slightly differently, the Angevin house of England could have been replaced by the French royal house, thereby uniting England and France under a single crown.  That, of course, was the ultimate aim of the English in the Hundred Years War in the 14th and 15th centuries, but that is a different story.  Still, the First Barons War was a close call, and John could easily have lost.  King John would die in October, 1216, the Crown being inherited by his nine year old son Henry III.  As part of the effort to bring the First Barons War to a conclusion, William Marshal, the prototypical knight of the period and the Regent of Henry III, caused there to be issued a shorter version of Magna Carta. This effort was not entirely successful, but the shorter version was ultimately incorporated into the settlement the brought about the resolution of the First Barons War.

      Henry III would again issue Magna Carta during his reign as a trade-off for new taxes, and his son Edward I would as well issue Magna Carta in his own name.  Subsequent monarchs would do the same through the 14th century.

      That said, none of the issuances of Magna Carta, irrespective of a specific content, had the same theatrical flair as the June 15, 1215 signing at Runnymede.  For that reason, it remains the event to which everybody refers.

      But it did not bring Magna Carta into law. 

      In other anniversaries, today is without question the date of issuance, in 1520, of the bull Exsurge Domine by Pope Leo X.  Addressed to formerly obscure theology professor Martin Luther, it threatened excommunication if Luther did not recant certain heretical views. He did not do so, and the threatened excommunication was carried out in January 1520.  Whereas the 1215 Magna Carta never had legal effect, Exsurge Domine did and does.

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