Have you ever wondered when, how and why did we transition from the eras where Kings and Emperors rule to the one today where Presidents and the Prime Ministers helm the political structures? The answers are, anti-climatically, the title of this blog post.
The Historical Context Behind the Magna Carta
The Magna Carta, the fancier latin term for The Great Charter, was signed in the 1200s medieval England by King John. Back then, King John was largely unpopular because of his failures in winning wars against France and he was also not very nice to his Barons. The Barons are feudal landowners who were given land by the King in exchange for taxes and the provision of knights in the service of the King. As King John painfully learnt, it’s never a good idea to piss off the very group of people who are the source of your military strength because they can come back to bite you. In 1215, the Barons came to London with their military force, coercing King John to sign the Magna Carta as illustrated in the featured drawing of this blog post.
The content of the Magna Carta and the egalitarianistic version of Justice
The charter, as you might expect, was engineered to suit the interest of the Barons. It protects and enhances their rights and privileges while undermining the King’s. The most relevant clause in the Charter in relation to the context of this blog post is Clause 40, which states that:
To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay, right or justice.
This might seem really underwhelming to you because this is almost a universal humanist law that we embrace today and it just seems right. However, we ought to exercise historical empathy and realized that it was a very revolutionary principle back then. Kings and Emperors were above the laws, giving the monarchs the tendency to be despotic. At the order of the King, be it for a reasonable purpose or simply because he is just not in the good mood on a particular day, people are executed. This particular clause prevents people from being executed arbitrarily or as a result of rampant despotism. Any man who is proposed to be punished, must be brought to the court and be given a fair trial. This might seem like a no-brainer to us in this era, but it is thanks to this clause of Magna Carta; which indirectly fomalised the egalitarian version of justice; that we see it as a no-brainer today and that we do not need to revere a King out of fear.
Parliamentarianism and England
King John’s signage of the Magna Carta, however, was mere tokenism. Much of the Charter was later ignored or repealed. Although the institution of the document was abolished, the revolutionary legacy that it left behind remained the ideological force that drove England towards Parliamentarianism. The spirit of the Magna Carta manifested in the rebellious creation of the De Montfort’s Parliament in 1265 where elected representatives, Knights, burgesses and the Barons were brought together in a discussion on equal footings. This enshrined the idea of parliamentarianism which was later popularised and created the House of the Common in England, which exists till today. However, England wasn’t the first to introduce parliamentarianism, Spain did. What was so prominent about England’s parliamentarianism was that it is enduring and it spread this idea and system to the many parts of the world as a great colonial power later on. It is, therefore, the beacon of parliamentarianism.
The Magna Carta was formalised in the medieval setting of England thanks to the notoriety of a King. The Magna Carta’s clause 40 was the indirect recognition that the monarch’s despotism can no longer be tolerated, hence a more egalitarian concept of justice ought to displace the despotic killings ordered by the monarch and protect human rights to live under the presence of this conceptual justice. Although the Magna Carta was repealed, the very idea of justice that it enshrined continue to resonate with many English. In 1265, a rebel named Montfort created a parliament in order to realize this concept of justice, setting the stage for parliamentarianism to become the popularised and formal political structure of Great Britain. Great Britain, with its empire-wide reach all over the world, unintentionally spread parliamentarianism all over the world, giving us this popularised political structure that we use today in many countries.
The politics book | Hardback (2013) Available at: https://www.dk.com/uk/9781409364450-the-politics-book/ (Accessed: 16 January 2017).
Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magna_Carta