Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Magna Carta

The origins of true freedom can be traced back to the 13th century, in a document called the Magna Carta. Before the historic paper was signed by King John in that meadow at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215, the King was free to do as he wished, by ‘Divine Right’. Granted, King William I, also known as William the Conqueror, did bring order to England. William believed in organization. He started by sending men out take a census, which became the Doomsday Book. William controlled his nobles, Norman and Saxon alike.

William’s grandson Henry II took his grandfather’s ideas and ran with them. Henry had increased England’s lands when he married Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitaine. Henry was a perceptive ruler, changing the legal system to bring litigation to the royal courts throughout the land. The King wasn’t stupid; this change also brought fees to the royal coffers. Henry developed the ‘Assize of Clarendon’ in 1166, which was the basis of trial by jury, gradually replacing the trial by ordeal. England outlawed trials by ordeal in 1819.

After Henry II died in 1189, his son Richard was anointed King. Richard was never meant to wear the crown. Henry had made it clear that John was his favorite, and was his choice to be king (after Henry the Younger died at age 18). Eleanor, in turn, loved Richard above all of her eight children. Richard would have been better off joining the Templars, leaving John to rule the lands Richard had no true interest in.

To support the Crusade, Richard needed money (gold). He ordered his Administrators to collect taxes, levies, and ‘contributions’ from the people. John was left behind while Eleanor accompanied Richard. Move ahead ten years. Richard returns to Normandy after he is ransomed. As King, instead of returning to England and taking up his role as King, Richard resumed his war with France. He took an arrow in the shoulder, it festered and he died.

In 1199, John takes the crown as King. Was the favorite son of Henry II a victim of bad advice, an idiot, or a self-serving scoundrel as depicted by history? The history books hold up Richard as a brave and pious man, yet John is said to be a poor ruler who continuously lost battles, lands, and even had John excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

From the time he was anointed, John made mistakes. First, he continued the bleeding of the country with the taxes & levies. The question remains though, did he act on his own, or did he did follow the advice of his counselors? How many men latched on to the King, filling his ears with compliments only to use John’s favor to get what they wanted? It is no secret that Sir William Marshall was at court when John was a new King. Marshall was a famous knight, in a way, a celebrity of his time. Did John resent Marshall’s advice due to Marshall’s popularity?

John used the money to strike out against the French, in an attempt to regain lands. Instead, the French took back Normandy. John limped back to England. He wasn’t done yet. When it was time to appoint a new Archbishop of Canterbury, John wanted one man, the Pope selected Stephen Langton, and the monks another. King John targeted churches as part of his quarrel. In retaliation, Pope Innocent III suspended church services, sacraments, and excommunicated John. Eventually John gave in.

To make matters worse, John’s administrators were becoming corrupt. The legal system set up under John’s father was abused. The nobles were tired of paying scutage (a fee paid in lieu of sending men to fight for the King by Noblemen). Royal officials were taking goods, horses, homes, and even food from people instead of meeting out justice in the court system.

In 1215, the lords of the land were fed up. They called the King out in April and told King John their grievances. In May, they met with the King and gave him the bad news: they were formally renouncing their allegiance. On June 15, a document was presented to John, ‘The Articles of Barons’. The King’s Great Seal was placed upon the document on June 19th. It was only later generations that this piece of paper was known as the Magna Carta.

The document spelled out specific items to which both the King and the Barons would be held accountable. For example: Section two deals with Reliefs for inheritance, section 11 Rights of widows and heirs as against creditors, and section 39 Free men guaranteed ‘law of the land’. One very section is number 43, Freedom to leave and reenter the kingdom. This states “In the future it shall be lawful (except for a short time period in time of war, for the common benefit of the realm) for anyone to leave and return to Our kingdom safely and securely by land and water, saving his fealty to Us. Excepted are those who have been imprisoned or outlawed according to the law, people of the country at war with Us, and merchants, who shall be dealt with as aforesaid."

Principles of the Magna Carta were incorporated in many of the early American charters. In 1639 the Maryland Colony charter included “the Inhabitants of Province shall have all of their rights according to the Great Charter of England”, which was the Magna Carta. Thomas Paine referred to the English document in his Common Sense. Many of the basic rights of the Constitution were taken from the Great Charter.

In my books, Gaelynn has a moral and ethical dilemma: should she use her knowldge of history to influence the people around her or let events happen as they will? Gaelynn was advised by her mother to assimilate into the culture, yet her stubborn nature fights to make basic changes. Landing in an alternate world, Gaelynn finds out that her historical knowledge is wrong, being that names & places are not the same. The big question then becomes when should she devulge her information and when should she keep quiet?

For more detailed reading on the historic document, look for:

Magna Carta: Text & Commentary
By A.E. Dick Howard
University Press of Virginia 1998

For those lucky enough to live in the San Francisco-Bay area, one of a handful of original copies of the Magna Carta is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts at Golden Gate Park until June 6th, 2011

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