The Barons' ultimatum

One of the defining moments in English history occurred on May 12th, 1215, when the Barons presented King John with an ultimatum demanding that he recognize their established rights as Englishmen. The king had no alternative but to agree, and 34 days later, in a ceremony at the Thames water-meadow called Runnymede, he signed the document that set out the rights of Englishmen and his commitment to uphold them. It came to be known as Magna Carta, the Great Charter.

It proclaimed that church rights would be protected, that the barons would not be imprisoned illegally, or denied swift justice, and it restricted the monarch’s right to demand feudal payments. It has a chequered history, annulled by the pope, reissued with modifications, incorporated into a peace treaty between a subsequent king and barons, and reissued again in return for agreement to new taxes. The Jurist Sir Edward Coke used it in the early 17th Century to argue against the Divine Right of Kings claimed by the Stuarts. Since then it has been regarded as one of the cornerstones of English law.

Its reputation is largely symbolic, since it was more concerned with the rights of those with rank, rather than with those of ordinary people, but it had a profound influence on the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and on the Constitution of the United States. The late Lord Denning described it as "the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot." Notions such as habeas corpus and Parliamentary rights can be traced to its influence. It limited the powers of rulers, and brought them under the law. Its words still resonate.

“No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way harmed, nor will we go upon him nor will we send upon him, except by the legal judgement of his peers or by the law of the land. To none will we sell, to none deny or delay, right or justice.”

The extension of its principles to protect the rights of ordinary people has been conveyed by subsequent Parliamentary Acts and legal judgements. William Pitt, later Earl of Chatham, expressed it in 1763.

“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown.  It may be frail, its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter, - but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.”