There’s been plenty of talk in the UK about the 799th anniversary of Magna Carta this month – with the 800th anniversary looming next year.
This was when King John of England was forced to sign a charter of rights by his barons. They were defending their own interests but the act of compelling the king to agree to relinquish some of his power has made the Magna Carta hugely influential in the United States and the former British Empire.
It’s probably better known outside of the United Kingdom than it is among English born people. In the UK, it’s a widely misunderstood document. Little Englanders think the Magna Carta is a nationalist manifesto while socialists have traditionally seen it as a people’s rebellion against the king.
Neither view is quite right. But there were some surprisingly progressive views expressed in the Magna Carta even if the motives behind it were anything but forward looking.
For example (with supporting quotes):
MAGNA CARTA IS FOR FEMINISTS
(7) At her husband’s death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband’s house for forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned to her.
(8) No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of.
FOREIGNERS WITH MONEY CAN COME AND GO AS THEY PLEASE
(41) All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs.
THE WELSH CAN RULE THEMSELVES
(56) If we have deprived or dispossessed any Welshmen of lands, liberties, or anything else in England or in Wales, without the lawful judgement of their equals, these are at once to be returned to them. A dispute on this point shall be determined in the Marches by the judgement of equals. English law shall apply to holdings of land in England, Welsh law to those in Wales, and the law of the Marches to those in the Marches. The Welsh shall treat us and ours in the same way.
BEING IMPRISONED WITHOUT TRIAL FOR ANY PERIOD IS A NON-STARTER
(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
+ (39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
HS2 WOULD NEVER HAVE GOT BUILT
(23) No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.
UK WOULD EITHER HAVE TO GO METRIC OR IMPERIAL – BUT NOT BOTH AT THE SAME TIME
(35) There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.
PUNISHMENT SHOULD FIT THE CRIME – AND THE OFFENDER
(20) For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a husbandman the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.