In Canberra, between the Hyatt Hotel and Old Parliament House, there is a most elegant memorial to Magna Carta, in a pleasant patch of grass called Magna Carta Place. The monument is a gift from the British Government to mark the centenary of the Australian Federation. The site was dedicated in 1997 which was the 700th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta by King Edward I of England. A 1297 copy of the Magna Carta, purchased by the Australian government in 1952, is on display in Parliament House.
In June this year the Queen led a flotilla of small craft in her royal barge Gloriana (it could pass for something you might see in Wagner’s Ring cycle, or at the end of Lord of the Rings) bearing a facsimile of the Great Charter to a meadow near Runnymede, where King John signed the first version. He subsequently had the Pope annul it, on the ground that it was signed under duress. But the Charter was redrafted three times in the next ten years, and confirmed as part of English law in 1297. In Canberra, the Museum of Australian Democracy held a medieval festival to celebrate the event. Its senior historian said this:
The Magna Carta really is at the bedrock of our democracy and that’s the link that we make in our latest exhibition. It was a bunch of barons saying to the king, you can’t just do what you like, there is a rule of law and we would like you to abide by it, and we want it in writing. And it is fundamental to the rule of law that we have in this country today, that is still being debated.
Like most Australians whom we now politely call ‘seniors’, I first learned of Magna Carta in primary school. It was Bad King John who signed it, to quieten the rebellious barons. King John was mixed up with Good King Richard and Robin Hood and Maid Marian, but I’m not sure the latter two were mentioned in primary school. But we had all seen Errol Flynn in ‘Robin Hood’, so the moral tone was straightforward. Richard was good. John was bad. In fact, on some accounts, Richard was just as tyrannical as his younger brother.
What had King John actually done? Three score and ten years later, I can’t quite remember what I learned in school. But it was Important, and was mixed up with how we got to be a democracy and had elections. King John became King of England on the death of Richard, in 1199. He lost the French possessions of the monarchy in battles in France, and died from illness in 1216. He demanded more money from the landholders, and was swift in dealing with those who would not pay, which led to growing opposition against him. Rebellious barons captured London in May 1215, and forced him to sign the Charter. That didn’t end things, because civil war followed quickly when he had the Pope annul it.
Magna Carta has 63 clauses, and virtually all of them are relevant only to the times. Three have status today. One of them defends the position of the English church (the document was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury), one confirms the special position of London and some other cities, while the third says that no one can be imprisoned, or exiled or dealt with harshly except by the law of the land. That is the rock on which our system of law, especially that dealing with the powerful, is based. John’s successor, Henry III, issued a second version in 1225, and that was granted in return for a tax payment from the whole kingdom. That is the rock on which our systems of representation and taxation are based.
So Magna Carta really is important, not simply in England, but in Australia, and also in the USA (which also possesses a copy of the 1297 Charter). But its importance grew slowly. The notion of a fair trial for everyone took time to be accepted, and it reappeared during the turbulence of the 17th century, and the English Civil War. Charles I was not agreed to be above the law, at least by a new class of rebellious subjects. The Pilgrim Fathers took a copy of the document with them to America as a statement of the principles under which the new colony would operate. Abraham Lincoln used the document to justify his abhorrence of slavery.
It is nonetheless true that most Australians, and Americans for that matter, have the scantest knowledge of the Charter and its fundamental importance in defining the kinds of rules under which we live. Part of the reason is that we no longer teach history in schools as the story of human progress. Part of it is that there is so much more to know about everything. Part of it is that the relentless 24-hour news cycle means that something like the anniversary of Magna Carta is given the same amount of attention as anything else that happens on one day, like the outcome of a football match.
Yet somehow the essential truth that no one is above the law, the message of Magna Carta, is reinforced for us each time a leading politician is held accountable for misdeeds for which he is responsible, or a rich baron like Alan Bond is sent to prison. It is reinforced when a Senate refuses to agree to legislation, and the government has to negotiate or find other ways to obtain its end. It is reinforced when someone is found to have detained other human beings in what is virtual slavery, and sent to gaol.
When these most newsworthy vents occur we do not pay the credit to Magna Carta that we might, but we do know that something very important, something deep within our collective psyche, has been infringed. And we react accordingly: ‘Hey. you can’t do that!’ is the voice of the ordinary person relying on his or her strongly-felt view that there is some prohibition somewhere against an arbitrary act which they have witnessed.
I have no suggestion about what ought to be done. But we know, through history, that nations can lose important bits of their cultures if they are not defended. A great deal of Roman civilisation, not just the technical bits, like how to make glass and concrete (which disappeared), but its literature and learning, barely survived the downfall of the Roman Empire. The legal and constitutional bits of our civilisation are even more precious, which is why we ought to celebrate anniversaries like that of Magna Carta. It is worth much more to us all than the results of all the football matches played on the same day.