Saturday, May 29, 2010

Magna Carta

It Was a Royal Pain, but It Ended Well
Were it not for the cloud of volcanic ash that disrupted air travel last month, one particular document on view through May 30 at the Morgan Library & Museum would have been returned to its home at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University weeks ago. But this document also would not be here (or anywhere else, for that matter) if the royal figure involved in its creation had been any less violent, venal, treacherous, incompetent and boorish. 

It is the “Great Charter,” the Magna Carta. The accidents and disruptions of history have conspired to allow us to look at this document: a 1217 version of a 1215 charter that, when first agreed to, bore the royal seal of King John of England. It is one of four original copies belonging to the Bodleian, and for nearly 800 years it has never left Britain. An original of the 1215 charter was on temporary loan to the United States Capitol for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations; Britain’s gift on that occasion included a copy made of gold housed in a special display case.

At the Morgan, everything about this manuscript is more humble. The Latin text is on parchment, crowded into a tight space, with almost no margins, though elegantly laid out in what is described by the museum as “a chancery-style hand.” It is far less grand in size than the foundational documents of the United States; it can almost be missed, encased atop a pedestal in front of a fireplace in the imposing library whose walls J. P. Morgan covered with inlaid walnut bookshelves, a 16th-century tapestry and allegorical paintings paying homage to the arts and sciences.

But there is a penumbra about the Magna Carta, a shadow cast in which its vision of an ideal nearly eclipses the mundane circumstances of its origins. Does every American school child still learn about its ramifications: the way this document — a treaty, really — between a feudal king and his rebellious barons introduced a form of constitutional law into English tradition? The way its antique agreements about forest land and purveyances created a contract in which the king is made subject to the rule of law?

“No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.” Such is the nature of the Magna Carta’s more noble passages to which the royal We of King John agreed. And “law of the land” was itself a strong phrase: the law accompanies the land and is inseparable from the land — not its rulers.

The charter codified a series of institutions and attitudes that seemed to treat England’s law as the successor to ecclesiastical law, having an authority and existence separate and above its earthly practitioners. Court trials would not be held haphazardly wherever the king happened to be, as they once were, but would be convened in a specific place, at which the king himself must appear. Penalties would be “according to the measure” of the offense; widows would not be forced into marriage; under-age heirs would not inherit certain kinds of debt.

Stay, for a moment, with this ideal vision of the Magna Carta, seemingly handed down to King John as if it were Britain’s version of the tablets of Sinai. “It was born with a grey Beard,” Samuel Johnson famously declared of the charter. And in the early 17th century, Edward Coke, who had been both Lord Chief Justice of England and a prisoner in the Tower of London, championed the charter for having established habeas corpus, trial by jury and due process. He may have exaggerated a bit, but the charter had just that influence on the American colonies.

In 1639, for example, Maryland’s General Assembly proclaimed that “the Inhabitants of this Province shall have all their rights and liberties according to the great Charter of England.” Later, in “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine called for a “Continental Charter or Charter of the United Colonies,” modeled after the Magna Carta, “securing freedom and property to all men.”

It is alluded to in amendments to the United States Constitution. And it was invoked by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 when she presented the United Nations with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One 20th-century English jurist called the Magna Carta “the greatest constitutional document of all times — the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

When we consider its origins, it is astounding that such a document could have come out of such circumstances. King John’s reign, which began in 1199, was scarred by one self-inflicted disaster after another. He lost territorial control over Anjou and Normandy and futilely plundered his treasury while hoping to join the Crusades. He may have murdered his nephew; he certainly slaughtered more than two dozen sons of Welsh hostages he took in battle. One report said that he treated his prisoners “so vilely” that it was “shameful and ugly to all those who were with him.” Some of the charter’s clauses are meant to undo some damage, returning Welsh and Scottish hostages, and restoring lands and liberties unlawfully taken.

 The religious realm was just as riven. In 1208, in a confrontation with Pope Innocent III over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, all of England was put under an interdict, forbidding church services; King John was ultimately excommunicated. But he and the pope reconciled, and no sooner had King John put his seal to the charter than he regretted it. He found an ally in the pope, who wrote that the Magna Carta was “not only shameful and base but also illegal and unjust.” The pope affirmed that it “dishonours the Apostolic See, injures the king’s right, shames the English nation, and endangers the crusade.”

There must have been some extraordinary barons on the other side. It was really a civil war which was supposed to end with the Magna Carta, but erupted again after King John balked. In the midst of the post-charter controversy, the king conveniently suffered an attack of dysentery, attributed by one chronicler to gluttony, “for he could never fill his belly full to satisfaction.”

Luckily for the charter, he died, and two years after his 9-year-old son, Henry III, took the throne, the Magna Carta was reaffirmed by the 1217 version shown here.

But how could these barons, themselves feudal lords with rights and powers affirmed and controlled by the charter, have come up with such a document without any records of debate or chronicles of their own extraordinary virtue? The most authoritative history, “Magna Carta,” by J. C. Holt, points out that some scholars have attributed the achievements of the charter to the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, but Mr. Holt argues that it was a consolidation of 12th-century practice led by barons experienced in legal procedure and administration.

Does that mean that these barons were enlightened rulers, respectful of all “free men” (as the charter puts it)? That seems, in the context of the time, just as unlikely.

Once such a situation would have frustrated us. We imagined our great documents and their imposing concepts emerging out of figures as grand as the ideas they devised. Then, more recently, there came an era in which, disappointed in the self-interest and flaws of human creators, we tended to imagine that ideas were intrinsically damaged by their clouded origins, the way the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution were imagined as diminished because of their slave-holding authors. Even now, there is a temptation to be hesitant in affirming the virtues of such a history — apologizing for it instead of celebrating it — because the highest principles pronounced have not always been so nobly put into practice.

The Magna Carta, though, with its own conglomeration of small and large concerns, its mixture of particular corrections and sweeping reforms, its history of conflicted ambitions and compromises, proves how mistaken this contemporary perspective is. The charter is a trace of an attempt to deal with a human mess that was plenty messy itself. Yet out of the Magna Carta, however fitfully and haphazardly, great things are still evolving.

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