Twenty miles west of London, in Surrey, lies a quiet meadow along the Thames River. It is a centuries-old place deep in the heart and soul of England, though no formal memorial to it was placed there until the middle of the last century by (ironically) the American Bar Association. Almost a century ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about it:
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.
That charter, the so-called “Great Charter” (or Magna Carta in the Latin used by the Norman rulers of the time), signed under duress by the tyrant King Jacques (we now call him “John”), reined in the power of his capricious reign, 800 years ago today. The event will be commemorated this evening at the site (morning in the U.S.) by Daniel Hannan, southeast England’s representative to the European Parliament, and fierce critic of the EU and defender of the principles of the Anglosphere.
The document grew out of a clash of cultures and a struggle of ideas. The Saxons of England had fought off the Romans a millennium before. Their ancestors had come from the Steppes of Russia to northern Europe, and finally to the British Isles. They had a fierce independence, and individualistic culture, and a profound antipathy to the notion of divine rights and God-Kings. While they had leaders, they were chosen by consensus, not heredity, and those leaders were first among equals, exemplified by Arthur and his knights.
That all changed in 1066, with the Norman invasion of England from France. It resulted in a top-down system of hereditary aristocracy inherited from the Middle Eastern and southern European empires, with their ancient notions of God-Kings with absolute power. Baronies were created, and power flowed not from the freemen who selected their leaders, but from a king whose only claim to power was his ancestry. But over time, while the barons retained their Norman names, they intermarried with the Saxons and “went native.” A quarter of a millennium after the invasion, they allied and revolted against a particularly capricious and cruel king, and faced him down along the Thames.
One should make neither too much, nor too little of this event. The same historical critics who sniff at our own 1789 Constitution as flawed because it accepted slavery are quick to point out that it granted rights only to the barons who revolted against the king, not to the peasantry, And that is true. And it would seem to have not been lasting; the king quickly got it annulled by the pope.
But it was resurrected by his successors, and its ideas live on. It is a critical document, in that it first codified in writing the fundamental principles of the limits of government power. It is the foundation of the (to a degree, mythical) British Constitution and the first in a long line of world-changing documents that gradually expanded the recognized natural rights of free men, to the principles laid out in the Glorious Revolution of 1689 in the overthrow of another tyrant, King James.
Almost a century later, in our own Declaration of Independence from Britain, these principles were expanded beyond the rights of Englishmen and made universal. This was in turn the foundation of the U.S. Constitution almost exactly a century later after the British revolution, culminating a few decades later with the Emancipation Proclamation and then the 14th Amendment, after our own bloody civil war to end slavery.
So while imperfect, and only a start, it was the first document known in the history of the world to elevate the law above men, with all that implied. It said that even kings (and presidents) had limits to their power, and couldn’t simply make it up as it went along. That is why it lies in our own National Archives, along with the foundational documents of our own Anglospheric nation.