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Called for 800 years to build community

12 June 2015

Magna Carta should be celebrated as an inspiration to the Church, argues Robin Griffith-Jones

KING JOHN reached Runnymede on 10 June, and there began five days of intensive negotiations with the barons. On the meadow, we are told, the barons "gathered with a multitude of most famous knights, armed well at all points, and they remained there, having fixed tents. But the King and his men dwelt in the same meadow in pavilions."

The royal pavilions, high like circus tops, will have towered over the mass of baronial tents. The King almost certainly returned to Windsor each night. He will hardly have felt safe among those well-armed and recalcitrant knights.

On Monday 15 June 1215, the King sealed his agreement with the barons. Next Monday, 800 years later to the day, the Queen and other members of the Royal Family will be at Runnymede. In the name of the nation, three people will address the gathered guests: the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Master of the Rolls, who is the judge in charge of civil justice in England and Wales; and the Prime Minister.

In 1215, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was one of the main mediators between John and the barons; "the Master of the Rolls" is an office first recorded in the 13th century; the Prime Minister inherits an office that has emerged, without any statutory prescription, over recent centuries.

It is in itself a token of the continuity of government in this country that these three will address a direct descendant of King John. It is a token of the strength of our evolving constitution that they will do so in unqualified loyalty to the Sovereign, who has served her people for more than 60 years. It is also a token of Magna Carta's own significance that its most famous words are on the statute book to this day:

"No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

"To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice."


YET this still leaves an uneasy question. To what end are we celebrating Magna Carta: what good will be in place in 2020 or 2025 that would not be in place without such celebrations?

Anniversaries have a civic value. They remind us as nations and communities who we are, and can reinforce that identity. All of us in England and throughout the Common Law world who share in the Charter's legacy can claim a share in its history, too, even if our own ancestors - whether 800 years ago or 80 - had no connection with England.

Equality before the law, fair trial, constitutional and fiscal restraints upon the executive - all these can be traced in a direct line back to Magna Carta. And all of us who value these rights are united in the debt we owe to the generations of politicians and jurists who have secured and developed them.

What we share is not just Magna Carta, but the structure of checks and balances on power which has been built on its foundation. On the tortuous and contested journey towards the rights we enjoy today, Magna Carta is now an icon of that journey's start, not of its destination. The Charter's beneficiaries were the "free men" of England: more than half of England's households were probably free by 1215 - the Charter was not an oligarchic coup - but we were a long way from the protection that the law now gives to all those who live here.

The rights of (noble) women were extended in the Charter, but remained to our ears derisory. The two clauses on the Jews will send a shiver down our spine; the 13th century was not a good time to be Jewish in England, and Magna Carta only deepened their oppression.

Even the first of the two great clauses on justice may have been designed simply to give the barons the rights in court before the King himself (who was under the notorious influence of his cronies from France) that the barons' own tenants enjoyed before the barons. The clause's importance grew over the centuries. Edward III glossed it in six statutes, the most famous in 1354:

"No man of whatever estate or condition that he be, shall be put out of land or tenement, nor taken nor imprisoned, nor disinherited, nor put to death, without being brought in answer by due process of the law."

This, too, may have been issued just to clarify the Charter itself: noblemen, as well as mere freemen, were protected. But what a grand statement of principle the clause had now become, protecting men of all estates with that still-famous phrase "due process of the law".

No wonder the clause would be wielded in 17th-century England by the opponents of royal absolutism, and in 18th-century America by those who saw in English rule little more than tyranny. Judgment on barons by baronial equals was now due process subject to Habeas Corpus.

In this 17th-century reading, those clauses on justice have spread round the world in every Common Law constitution and in every human-rights instrument of the 20th century. They are the bedrock on which, 800 years after Runnymede, much of the world's freedom is built.


WHY should the Church be celebrating the Charter? We could simply be sanctifying a current constitutional cause. Or we could perhaps just see, in a tidy convergence of principle and self-interest, that the Church's best hope of security and freedom lies in the equality of all citizens, whatever their faith, before the law.

We have better grounds than these, however. Archbishop Langton was central to the drafting of Magna Carta and to its sealing. Two archbishops and seven bishops - and, I am glad to say, my predecessor as Master of the Temple at the Temple Church - advised the King to grant the Charter.

To ensure the Carter's safety from suppression by royal officers who were now subject to its discipline, the copies were entrusted to cathedrals. From 1225 onwards, the Charter's promulgation was accompanied by rituals of excommunication imposed on anyone who broke the Charter's terms. By 1253, the sentence of this excommunication was read out in parish churches across England, on Sundays and feast-days, accompanied by lighted candles and the ringing of bells.

In 1279, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, ordered his clergy to explain the sentence to their parishioners, and had copies of Magna Carta fixed to church doors. In the 14th century, William of Pagula included the Charter in his manual for parish priests. It was now part of the clergyman's job description to know the charter, and to publicise and enforce it.

The late Sir James Holt, doyen of historians of the Charter, wrote in 1992: "The men who were responsible for the Great Charter of 1215 asserted one great principle. In their view the realm was more than a geographic or administrative unit. It was a community. As such, it was capable of possessing rights and liberties which could be asserted against any member of the community, even and especially against the King."


IT IS not the Sovereign now who threatens our rights and liberties; on the contrary, she will on Monday represent their most powerful protection. We in the Church threaten no excommunication now, nor wield candles or curses against those who breach the Charter's terms. Lessons drawn from so long ago are more rhetorical than practical.

But the Church's part in the creation, promulgation, and enforcement of the Charter offers an inspiration of its own. We in the Church know, better than most, the power and importance of foundational texts re- interpreted and selectively re-applied, generation by generation. The Charter still calls on us to build out of our country's disparate components a single, peaceable, and just community, with all the courage and insight of Archbishop Langton himself.


The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is the Reverend and Valiant Master of the Temple, at the Temple Church, London. Magna Carta, Religion and the Rule of Law, edited by Robin Griffith-Jones and Mark Hill, is published by Cambridge University Press.

The Temple Church is hosting, until the end of the year, an exhibition on Magna Carta. www.templechurch.com 

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