June 15, 2015 marks 800 years since a fateful day along the River Thames just twenty miles west of central London. It’s a good thing to note such anniversaries. They encourage us to discover things we should have learned or should never have forgotten.
It was on this date in 1215 that powerful nobles famously compelled the English monarch to sign and seal the Magna Carta, Latin for “Great Charter.”
Most people possess at least a vague sense that the event had something to do with human liberty, but it’s doubtful they know that it was provoked primarily by two brothers and two calamities.
The brothers were named Richard and John. The calamities were war and taxes.
It all started on September 3, 1189 — twenty-six years before that day at Runnymede. Richard “the Lionheart” was crowned King of England and spent almost all of the next ten years outside the country, crusading in the Middle East and then battling in Normandy to hold on to England’s claim against lands in France.
His adventures didn’t come cheap.
In his first year on the throne, Richard imposed the “Saladin Tithe” and other exactions to help pay for his crusading — thus boosting the tax burden by nearly 50 percent. Heavy levies were dumped on land-owners even for permission to marry or to inherit wealth.
Then in 1192 as Richard was on his way home from Jerusalem, he was captured and held for ransom in Germany by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI. The phrase, “a king’s ransom,” likely originates from the price Richard insisted his subjects fork over to free him.
Back in England, Richard’s mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) collaborated with her allies in government to collect the money.
Dan Jones in his 2014 book, Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter, writes:
Together, they worked Europe’s diplomatic channels, found hostages and ships when these were demanded by the king’s captors, levied a 25-percent tax on income and movables, requisitioned a whole year’s supply of wool from England’s Cistercian abbeys, and followed up Richard’s personal request for English churches to send ‘the whole of the gold and silver’ that they kept, which he promised to return on his release.
With the ransom paid, Richard returned to England. Within a matter of weeks, he took off for another five years of war in France until his death in 1199 from a battle wound. A Frenchman using a frying pan for a shield had fired a crossbow and hit Richard in the shoulder. Two weeks later, beset with gangrene, Richard departed this earth. Whatever reward awaited him, it wasn’t tax revenue.
The throne then passed to Richard’s brother John. Might we expect that John wisely refrained from the war and taxes that made Richard unpopular with many? No. In fact, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
John made Richard seem like Good King Wenceslaus in short order. To describe him, Jones employs adjectives like “cruel,” “unpleasant,” “ruthless,” “slippery,” “faithless,” “lecherous,” “wicked,” “petty” and “interfering.”
He cites a contemporary of John’s, the writer Ralph of Coggeshall, who deplored John’s “small-minded viciousness” and his “childish habits of ridiculing his subjects and laughing at their misfortunes.” These were the days before monarchs had PR departments to soften their rough edges. John even managed to get excommunicated by Pope Innocent III because he couldn’t keep his hands off the Church’s affairs or its money.
John picked up where Richard left off. Like his predecessor, his spent much of his reign making war in an attempt to regain land in France lost to the French. In For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization, economic historian Charles Adams quotes an observer who wrote of the king in 1211: “With occasions of his wars he pilleth them with taxes and tallages unto the bare bones.”
When he needed horses or wagons or food for his troops, John often just seized the stuff from private owners. Anticipating Nancy “you have to pass it to find out what’s in it” Pelosi by eight centuries, John would sometimes bully subjects to meet his demands immediately in exchange for the promise that they would find out the terms of the seizure later.
Merchants were mercilessly and arbitrarily targeted for the cash they traveled with from town to town. When he needed a bridge built, he could and did resort to compulsory labor.
Bled dry by two buffoons in a row, the barons and dukes of England, with the support of just about everybody else, mustered the courage in 1215 to tell John where to get off.
Among the provisions of the Magna Carta they forced John to sign at Runnymede were these that stemmed from his (and Richard’s) wars and taxes:
No scutage (a tax paid in lieu of compulsory military service) or other aid is to be levied in our realm, except by the common counsel of our realm. (Clause 12).
The City of London shall have all its ancient liberties and free customs both on land and on water. Furthermore, we wish and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns and ports shall have all their liberties and free customs. (Clause 13).
Neither town nor man shall be forced to build bridges over rivers, except those who are obliged to do so by custom and right. (Clause 23).
No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this. (Clause 28).
No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man without his consent. (Clause 30).
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 (“evil tolls” by at least one translation), in accordance with ancient and lawful customs. (Clause 41).
If anyone has been dispossessed of lands, castles, liberties or of his rights, without lawful judgment of his peers, it shall immediately be restored to him. (Clause 52).
Wherefore we wish and firmly command that the English Church shall be free and that men in our kingdom have and hold all such aforesaid liberties, rights and grants, well and in peace, freely and quietly, fully and completely, for themselves and their heirs, in all things and in all places, in perpetuity. (Clause 63).
A pivotal moment in the long blossoming of human liberties had occurred.
It would not be a straight, smooth experience. And God knows that John’s last conflict was hardly “the war to end all wars.” Wars and their attendant taxes, as well as endless encroachments and corruptions of both Kings and Parliaments, would in turn produce endless struggles for the restoration or expansion of liberty in this “sceptered isle.”
Barely a century after Magna Carta, the Scots would find themselves bludgeoned by England’s Edward I and his son Edward II. In 1320 Scottish nobles issued another critical document in the history of liberty, the Declaration of Arbroath.
They asserted, 456 years before the Americans in the Declaration of Independence, that it was the duty of the sovereign to rule by the consent of the governed, and the duty of the governed to get rid of him if he didn’t.
“It is not for honors or glory or wealth that we fight,” they announced, “but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life.”
Important principles were put in writing at Runnymede that generations have called upon ever since and from many places. They include the notions that the King ought to ask before he takes and that his subjects aren’t mere dirt he can blithely step on when he pleases.
Arguably, in the last century or so, the liberties of the British people have eroded substantially as money, power, and welfare statism have mushroomed in Westminster. Maybe it’s time for another Magna Carta.