Today, 15 June 2017, marks the 802nd anniversary of the Magna Carta, a document that has played a crucial role in the development of human rights, liberty, and the rule of law all around the world.
It is important to note that the Magna Carta was not the first time that a ruler had agreed in writing to protect the liberties, privileges, and rights of both the clergy and nobles by limiting the power of the monarchy. In fact, it was often the practice of the king to make concessions to his nobles in order to secure the throne or maintain the peace.
The most notable of these documents is the Coronation Charter, issued in 1100 by Henry I (my 27th great-grandfather) that atoned for the past transgressions of his predecessor, thereby ensuring a steady flow of monies from the nobility to the royal coffers. Unfortunately, in 1135, with Henry I’s death, the next four kings either forgot about the charter or failed to acknowledge it.
However, 113 years later, the Coronation Charter was revived by Stephen Langton, Canterbury’s archbishop. In 1209, John “Lackland” of England (my 25th and two-times 24th great-grandfather) was excommunicated in a dispute over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In retaliation, King John confiscated church property and sold it back to the bishops at a profit. The Archbishop of Canterbury, angered by the King’s actions, shared the Coronation Charter with a few powerful nobles, who were also frustrated with King John’s heavy taxes and unsuccessful foreign policies. The idea of a new and improved charter began to flourish.
The king was on the precipice of a possible rebellion. To assuage the anger of the nobles, John “Lackland” conceded to a charter of liberties, known as the Magna Carta. This document would subject him and all of England’s future monarchs to the rule of law. Though the charter subsequently was unsuccessful, the Magna Carta was revised and reissued in 1216, 1217, and 1225.
Twenty-seven clergy and secular leaders, as well as a few moderates who had advised John “Lackland” to accept its terms, are listed in the preamble of the Magna Carta:
“John, by the grace of God, king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants and all his officials and faithful subjects’ greeting. Know that we, out of reverence for God and for the salvation of our soul and those of all our ancestors and heirs, for the Honour of God and the advancement of Holy Church and the reform of our Kingdom, on the advice of our reverend fathers, Stephen archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England and cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, Henry archbishop of Dublin, William of London, Peter of Winchester, Jocelyn of Bath and Glastonbury, Hugh of Lincoln, Walter of Worcester, William of Coventry and Benedict of Rochester bishops, of Mater Pandulf subdeacon and member of the household of the lord pope, of brother Aimeric master of the Knights of the Temple in England and of the noblemen William the Marshal earl of Pembroke, William earl of Salisbury, William earl of Warenne, William earl of Arundle, Alan of Galloway constable of Scotland, Warin son of Gerild, Peter son of Herbert, Hubert de Burgh seneschal of Poitou, Hugh de Neville, Matthew son of Herbert, Thomas Basset, Alan Basset, Philip d’Aubigny, Robert of Ropsley, John Marshal, John son of Hugh and others, our faithful subjects.”
Four of those listed in the preamble are my known direct ancestors: William d’Aubigny, my 23rd great-grandfather; William de Warenne, my 24th great-grandfather; Piers FitzHerbert, my 25th great-grandfather; and William Marshal, my 25th great-grandfather.
After its passage, nearly a dozen copies of the Magna Carta were created and distributed throughout England.
A group of barons in the forefront of the opposition to John “Lackland” of England, known as the Council of Twenty-Five, were entrusted with enforcing the terms of Clause 61 of the Magna Carta. Clause 61—the security clause—compelled the monarch to sanction and institute armed action against himself if he violated the charter, using the common law doctrine of distraint—the means by which debts were collected from debtors and criminals obliged to answer for their actions in court. The following known ancestors were on this Council of Twenty-Five:
- Hugh Bigod (my 25th great-grandfather)
- Roger Bigod (my 26th great-grandfather)
- Henry de Bohun (my 26th great-grandfather)
- Richard de Clare (my 25th great-grandfather)
- Gilbert de Clare (my 24th great-grandfather)
- John de Lacy (my 25th great-grandfather)
- William de Mowbray (my 25th great-grandfather)
- Saer de Quincy (my 24th great-grandfather and four-times 25th great-grandfather)
- Robert de Ros (my 24th and two-times 25th great-grandfather)
- Robert de Vere (my 25th great-grandfather)
- William Longespée (my 24th and my 25th great-grandfather)
For more than eight centuries, the premise behind the Magna Carta has persevered. The Magna Carta is the foundation for the English system of common law. American’s founding fathers used the Magna Carta as the precedent when declaring their independence from the English crown. Throughout history, the Magna Carta has been, and continues to be, a symbol of freedom from oppression. It is one of the most important documents in history, establishing that everyone is subject to the law—even those in power—and that everyone is entitled to justice and a fair trial.