How Magna Carta became a Paradigm of Modern Law

Magna Carta
The Magna Carta
Magna Carta
The Magna Carta

THUNDER BAY – POLITICS – Not long ago staying in Duluth, one of our favourite American cities, a by-line in a morning newspaper became a preview to this story. The entry championed this month’s 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

Walking the sloping streets of Duluth, a bit later, a teacher from our Ancient history class kept coming back with those clarion moments one recalls where an instructor had moulded a course with such fine detail. With a precision re-living the back pages of time with a tone that bordered on marvellous. So true were his descriptions setting the scene at Runnymede, near present day Windsor Castle, one felt our historian might actually have been a scrivener inside the tent where what became law was dramatically forged.

Though a present day reader able to visit the British Museum in London will discover an original sheep parchment, inked in Latin, housed in its 41″x28″ encasement. With a collection of prose creating a linear pattern indicative of the terms bargained between King John and some forty barons who began their discourse of June 12, 1215. Completing their negotiations a few after.

Though an American visitor was heard to say, “it looks more like my wrinkled government tax form I keep posted every year back home.”

Magna Carta translates as “great charter.” That derives from “the huge-ness” as another observer described the size of the vellum.

To comprehend what Magna Carta came to symbolize as an instrument in freedoms for the common man a glancing review of what notable politicians, and others, who judge such matters maybe educational.

Pierre Trudeau architect of Canada’s Charter observed, “A country is not something you build as the pharaohs built pyramids. Then leave to defy eternity. A country is built every day out of

certain shared values. Many of ours were taken from England’s Magna Carta.”

Reading further back doing research on this piece it was William Penn, governor in the new state of Pennsylvania in the 17th century, who elevated the contents of Magna Carta heralding it as “The Bible of the English people.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt was emphatic about the Charter’s impervious doctrine on behalf of Mankind. As part of his inaugural address, in 194, Roosevelt underscored where civility in existential times originated, “the democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It was written in Magna Carta.”

One who believed words were ultimately mightier than the sword was Winston Churchill. He sensed as New York’s World’s Fair was closing in 1939 where a version of Magna Carta had been displayed that Britain should donate the magnificence of it to the United States. Realizing how many millions had travelled to view it. Churchill believed it should be donated to America. That was almost the game plan. However when war became imminent on the Continent and all things would domino into World War Two the Charter was moved to Fort Knox. It was kept in safety there until the war ended. Currently it is proudly displayed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile Britain’s Lord Denning a foremost judge. Also a supreme constitutional barrister for all seasons who had ample time to validate legal matters. Because Denning’s longevity, he lived to be over a hundred, permitted a deep pool study of imperial documents. Denning hailed Magna Carta as being, “the greatest constitutional document of all time. The foundation of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.” Going back to those maverick barons who acted as shepherds nurturing a medieval experience that became so far reaching. When they gathered encircling, confronting, King John along the meadow juxtaposed to Runnymede that co-operative of barons became through the Charter an instrumental parchment (aka the Article of Barons) that matriculated a kind of peace accord with a wily King who virtually made up sinister laws as he went from place to place.

A comparison to the English game of chess may prove reasonable. Because Magna Carta was a chorus of voices rising up to question while vetoing and attempting to put a substantial vice on the spinning tides of King John’s willy-nilly tax demands. These were termed “scutages.” For King John was pursuing, almost at his own wilful and gleeful random, anything that attracted his ego.

Everything becoming especially tragic when John’s misfortunes in losing battles on the continent of Europe were draining his coffers. By 2006 he had lost the province of Normandy.

Besides every callous over stepping, while making unilateral decisions, employed within the kingdom would have made weekly headlines had there been newspapers back then. He was cast, in the shadow of his sly actions, as John the treacherous. Very unfortunate, really, in that John was related to Richard the Lionhearted.

Looking at a chessboard where the game’s movements keep a perceptive eye focused on the power a King may flaunt with his Queen. In the rules of chess the Royals may moved cunningly to capture pieces called bishops, knights, rooks (castles) and pawns. Though a contest ends when the King is isolated. Can no longer move from his existential square. Is defeated, mat last, with what is called Checkmate. In its own fashion the 13th century developments and those calligraphic Latin words, applied over several days of dedicated penmanship, were articulating a form of checkmate on King John.

English historian Daniel Hannan talks of Magna Carta as being the ultimate claim to modern law making. “It became the biggest bargain in the history of the human race when it was struck.

That’s a big claim. But in this case only superlatives will do.”

Back in time, drawing sketches listening to our teacher of my Medieval English class I recall-creating drawings on the margins of my notebook. These horses assembled for the sheriffs, legionnaires in their armament, with long shields, swords, quivers of arrows, and, cloaked in protective metal with gauntlets.

Though some elements I was unable to picture were the scents and sounds–possibly–the notes of a long trumpet crystallizing what was surely a magnificent, yet proletarian, capsular experience. Crusading as a true paradigm for future lawmakers that simply became so substantial.

What also draws one’s attention to the aftermath of Runnymede is the outright magnetism that unfolded on the other side of the Atlantic. That was in the American Revolution of 1776 where colonists adapted “freedom’s liberties” translated from the Charter. All this made headway in the form of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ seal. Where a Patriot brandishing a sword in one hand held pa scroll of Magna Carta in the other.

Fitting the American version of the Charter was exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Art last summer, on Huntington Avenue, where visitors arrived to view it in swollen numbers dwarfing other exhibits being held simultaneously. It revealed how New England Fatherscreated, and modelled, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights, incorporating language derived from Magna Carta.

These days around our own Commonwealth, in the Southern Hemisphere, in the Land Down Under a stately edition of the Charter has been displayed by Australians in their Government House in Canberra.

During this upcoming summer Canada has selected four cities as showcase centres hosting a touring Magna Carta Exhibition. It will begin in Ottawa, travel to Edmonton, and, Winnipeg before completing its travels in Toronto.

So, all this came to pass at a make shift bargaining table fully eight centuries ago this week in June. When King John was jilted being held in a kind of medieval ransom as rebellious barons sought what became “the law of the land.” No longer willing to be tousled by the overpowering claw of a disillusioned monarch. In a final act, as a subdued royal John very reluctantly applied his king’s seal to Magna Carta’s vellum.

In doing so a new democracy defining free men, their home, property, and, possessions were secured.

Those articles defined, in current English translations, will be celebrated in a grand unison of global celebrations that will make contemporary stories, and anecdotes, throughout the nobility of this week.

Where the universal civility of all events should harp back to the choir of those stout barons.

Even as anonymous as they remain. Because it was their resistance, and refusal to buckle beneath the yoke of a tyrant king bordering on becoming a despot, that makes Magna Carta what it is.

As Ireland became the second land to endorse Magna Carta, within the conglomerate of Wales and others, I located a translation from a Celtic verse that might carry the spirit of what was developing.

” There was…a wind at ease with the depth of history to come,

and, of its own emptiness who knows,

how it was in the beginning…

before the silence became unbearable,

and, space rippled them all to dream grand things.”

And, as we moved about the colourful pace and shoreline setting that defines Duluth we will have our visit to recall the anniversary of Magna Carta when moments, in the shaping of its past are portrayed in newscasts, magazines, and, newspaper profiles this June.

Besides it’s rather neat being remembering the city of Duluth took its name from a Quebec explorer called Daniel Greysolon Dulhut (pof the 17th century. He had navigated his way by

Birch bark canoe from Montreal to a collection of headwaters merging, where we were, into Lake Superior. There’s another pleasant thought that both Canada and the States still maintain the longest amicable Customs border in the free world. A gently awesome ideal those barons at Runnymede would have applauded, no doubt.

Meanwhile where we stayed was adjacent to District Law Building. Built with gigantic Greek pillars. It became our first postcard image every morning. Where its classical structure received the first warming rays of sunlight lifting on the horizon rising over Superior.

There was mellowness, sipping coffee or tea, while watching how beams of early light defined the cluster of engraved letters on the facade facing us in a brilliant way.

What was written in accenting the monumental motions long lingering in the aftermath of this Magna Carta review were:

The People’s Laws. Define Order. Rights & duties. Secures Public Safety.

Defends Liberty.   Teaches reverence, obedience, and establishes justice.

Ronn Hartviksen

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