Monday, June 15, 2015

800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta; What Did It Have To Do With Religious Freedom?

Today is widely celebrated as the 800th anniversary of King John's placing his seal on the Magna Carta (full text) at the demand of rebellious barons. (Background  from the National Archives). However it is actually a revised version agreed to 4 days later that laid the foundation for the rule of law and due process for all freemen.  That is the text that has survived. As recounted by the National Archives in an article titled Magna Carta and Its American Legacy:
Of great significance to future generations was a minor wording change, the replacement of the term "any baron" with "any freeman" in stipulating to whom the provisions applied. Over time, it would help justify the application of the Charter's provisions to a greater part of the population....
What is largely forgotten, however, is that the very first of the protections set out in the Magna Carta was for the English Church (which at this pre-Reformation time still acknowledged the authority of the Pope [background]):
Know that we, at the prompting of God and for the health of our soul and the souls of our ancestors and successors, for the glory of holy Church and the improvement of our realm, freely and out of our good will have given and granted to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons and all of our realm these liberties written below to hold in our realm of England in perpetuity.
In the first place we grant to God and confirm by this our present charter for ourselves and our heirs in perpetuity that the English Church is to be free and to have all its rights fully and its liberties entirely.
This was far from the final chapter in King John's relationship with the Church.  As recounted in Meeting at Runnymede from the Constitutional Rights Foundation:
King John ... secretly wrote the Pope asking him to cancel Magna Carta on the grounds that he signed it against his will. At the same time he continued to build up his mercenary army. Not trusting John's intentions, the rebel barons held on to London and maintained their own army.
Pope Innocent III replied favorably to King John's appeal. He condemned Magna Carta and declared it null and void.... The barons charged that King John had defaulted on his agreement with them and they were justified in removing him from the throne. They offered the throne to the son of the French king, if he would aid their rebellion.
A long and bloody civil war loomed across England, when suddenly, King John died....Ten days later John's nine-year-old son, Henry, was crowned as the new king of England. With John out of the way, the conflict gradually ceased. Less than a month after Henry was crowned, his supporters confirmed Magna Carta in his name. This time it received the approval of the Pope.