A country near to bankruptcy, watered down manifesto promises, issues of human rights and outsourcing by the government. It all sounds familiar today, but, as The Farnham Society learned in our recent lecture, this happened 800 years ago.
On Tuesday 2 June, the military historian Alan Turton delivered a lecture titled ‘In the meadow which is called Runnymede’. We heard how England, under King John in the early 13th century found her finances depleted after years of disastrous war with France. Against this background the barons formulated a list of demands, presented in 63 clauses. In 1215, King John set out from his castle at Odiham for the historic meeting at Runnymede, after which he put his seal to the document. Multiple copies of the document were produced, to distribute nationwide. Different script styles in the various copies show how they were produced at various locations, some of the work having been passed to Oxford colleges. Outsourcing is nothing new!
However, this was only the start of a long story. Within a short time, the king repudiated the document. It was reinstated by his successor, the young Henry III, under the stewardship of William Marshall. This version, however, omitted the enforcement clauses present in the original. Further versions of the charter were issued, with progressively fewer clauses. By the end of the thirteenth century, 37 clauses remained, and today only 3 are still valid: one relating to the liberty of the church; the liberty of London and other cities and ports; and the rights of free men to justice. Magna Carta’s power is now, to a considerable extent symbolic.
With the future of human rights legislation in the forefront of political activity, we might remind ourselves of the words of the Parliamentarian Thomas Fairfax: ‘This is what we have fought for, and by God’s help we must maintain’.