Magazine article New Criterion

The Legacy of Runnymede

Magazine article New Criterion

The Legacy of Runnymede

Article excerpt

It was 800 years ago this past June that King John and his entourage met with a group of disaffected barons at Runnymede, a water meadow on the south bank of the Thames between the royal fortress of Windsor Castle and the barons' camp at Staines. As the historian Jeremy Black shows in his essay below, the document provisionally adopted at that convocation, known throughout the world as Magna Carta, "the Great Charter," is a founding testament in the long, hard, and circuitous development of political liberty.

Most of the original Magna Carta, which was revised and reissued many times in subsequent years, pertained chiefly to the depredations of King John, known to every school child in his previous incarnation as the evil Prince John, the cruel and greedy enemy of the people (and brother of the noble Richard the Lionheart) and the bane of Robin Hood. But beyond its local application to a wayward king, Magna Carta has emerged as a beacon of liberty because of its rudimentary affirmation of certain basic principles that people living in democratic societies take for granted-the principle of habeas corpus, for example, which aims to protect citizens against unlawful detention and imprisonment. Above all, Magna Carta affirmed the principle that the law applied to everyone, even to the monarch:

"We will sell to no man," Clause 40 declared, "we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right." So it is that the majestic figure of Justice decorating our courts has traditionally appeared blindfolded and holding a scale. Justice doesn't peek to see who is seeking redress. She doesn't have her thumb on the scales to please her favorites. So far as is humanly possible, that figure implies, the law will be applied impartially to all equally without regard to rank or wealth, patronage or political connection.

Political liberty, however, is a fragile achievement, ever beset by the claims of privilege, undermined by enthusiasts of all persuasions. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.