Monday, January 10, 2011

1215: The Year of the Magna Carta / by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham

In 1215 at Runnymede, a small section of forest west of London, the English nobles and King John (of Robin Hood fame) met peaceably to discuss the king's arbitrary rule of law opposing the canonical law of the land. Over-taxation and costly wars had made the King unpopular with the council of lords and barons who believed that the monarch already wielded too much power. Thus the nobles, rather than raise arms against the monarchy, an event which many felt would only lead to Civil War and increased French influence in the region, resorted to an ultimatum. King John would sign a treaty pledging to limit his sovereign priveleges and relegate authority to the barons or commit to an all out, self-destrucive war. Besides laying down restrictions to the king's authority, the 63 clauses of the charter introduced legislation regarding the right to a fair trial, right to own property and other stipulations involving personal freedoms and liberties. The document, then known as the 'Articles of the Barons' or simply the 'Runnymede Charter', became known as the Magna Carta.
Though of minimal significance for its time--it was repealed and reconfirmed at intervals over the next few years--the Magna Carta would resonate through the ages as perhaps the most important individual document on civil liberties, including inalienable human rights and 'self-evident truths', that the world has ever seen. More importantly, it was the document which the American Founding Fathers perpetually referenced when drafting the Declaration of Independence and, later on, the U.S. Constitution. Danziger, already well-known for his concise histories which pinpoint a precise year, extrapolates here on the people and lifestyles during the early part of the 13th century in a more conventional historical chronicle rather than go into detail about the political ramifications of the charter itself. The actual Magna Carta isn't really got into until the final chapters with the signing of the document only found in the book's last pages. It's still a fun, informative and entertaining bit of history. (942.033 DANZIGER)

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