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The Magna Carta: A Sabbatical in England

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta (The Great Charter)

To end this series of sabbatical articles, I return to the beginning: That is, the beginning of the rule of law enjoyed by both England and America.

The year was 1215. King John was the reigning monarch of England, and it was not going well for him. Born on Christmas Eve, 1167, he has been called a lecherous traitor, a depraved tyrant and a hopeless leader in war. It is no wonder that his subjects rose up against him.

Like his predecessors, King John ruled using the principle of “force and will,” making executive and sometimes arbitrary decisions on the basis that the King was above the law.

The barons in the north and east of England renounced their feudal allegiance to the king and marched on London, capturing the city, and forcing King John to negotiate. On June 10, 1215, both sides met on a meadow at Runnymede on the south bank of the  River Thames. This was a traditional place for assemblies, and was on neutral ground between the two sides. Over the next ten days the two sides mediated their dispute, using the Archbishop of Canterbury as a mediator.

This process was substantially similar to the mediation process we use today in litigation. When we have a litigation case that reaches a point where a mediated resolution appears possible, the litigators in our firm coordinate with counsel for the other side to arrange a mediation. We agree on a location for the mediation and we agree on a mediator. Both sides submit positions and proposals to the mediator, who works with both sides to move toward a negotiated settlement, which we then confirm in writing with a document called a Settlement Agreement, which is then signed by both sides.

This same process was employed by the parties at Runnymede. Both sides brought with them written proposals, which they gave to the Archbishop, who worked with the parties to move toward a negotiated settlement. Over a period of ten days the Archbishop’s pragmatic efforts resulted in a settlement agreement which was written down and signed by both sides. This written agreement has become known as The Magna Carta (The Great Charter).

The barons renewed their oaths of allegiance to King John and copies of the Magna Carta were formally issued. Of those copies made in 1215, only four have survived, and one is owned by the Lincoln Cathedral in the City of Lincoln, England. It is on display in a vault at a museum there for all to see.

I was privileged to visit that museum and see, with my own eyes, this great document. I was amazed that this historic document is written in tiny script, and is contained entirely on one page. Though small in size, it’s importance is huge. For the first time, it established that no one, not even the king, was above the law. It provided for the protection of rights, including protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice and limitations on taxation. It even protected certain rights of serfs.

Standing in the presence of this historic document which serves as the basis of our own country’s allegiance to the rule of law, I was reminded of the words of John Adams, one of our founding fathers, referring to our Constitution, “May [it] be a government of laws, and not of men.” It is this rule of law that is at the core of the American idea that makes possible individual freedom. And, this rule of law has its origin in The Magna Carta, on display in a museum next to the Lincoln Cathedral, in England.