We vote, we express ourselves, we bring the governments down, elect new ones, enact laws , criticise our society and the people who rule us.In short, a large percentage of the people living on this earth live under democratic regimes.There are some notable exceptions though, where democracy in its traditional sense id not practiced , like China, much of West Asia, Pakistan,and large parts of Africa.
We should be grateful to an event that happened sometime in England in the year 1215 AD.That event was the signing of the Magna Carta.
What is Magna Carta? Well, it was a document that promised justice to all the “free men” in England.This document was signed as an agreement between King John and the English public.
Why was Magna Carta signed? Well, it so happened that the English King John, considered one of the worst rulers of England , had imposed heavy taxes and levies on his subjects to finance his war against foreign countries.He was a ruthless man, having imprisoned his former wife, was suspected of murdering his nephew, starved his opponents to death and even pulled his Irish noblemen’s beards.
The barons were up and against him, they besieged him in his castle and ultimately King John had to sue for peace.The two sides met in June 1215 AD and an agreement was signed that listed the duties and privileges of the aristocracy.
But, the most important clause that stood out was that no “free man” will be denied justice and free trial.The term “free men” was not an all encompassing term, it referred to only those Englishmen who were free and not under duress.The majority of Englishmen in those times were peasants who were ruled by the feudal lords.
This agreement, Magna Carta, went on to become the guiding light for most of the liberty and freedom movements whether they emanated in the United States,France or even in India.
It must be noted that Magna Carta came into existence not as a reaction to King John ‘s tyrannical ways , but, as a response to the manner of the functioning of the successive royal governments.
The Origins of Magna Carta
King John ascended the throne in 1199 and continued on the throne till 1216 AD.He had succeeded his father King Henry who himself had got the throne in the year 1154 AD and continued till 1189. He had gained a lot of territory in both England as well as France by way of inheritance and his kingdom included the territories in France between the Channel and the Pyrenees.He had married Eleanor of the Aquitaines and thus , received this territory as inheritance.King Henry was an ambitious soul too, having conquered Brittany and Wales in England.This exercise naturally demanded money which is why the English subjects came to be heavily taxed.
King Henry belonged to Plantagenets , who had strategically married into the Norman rulers of England in early 11th century to get a foothold in the English kingdom.
Henry was succeeded by Richard,The Lionheart, the famous king who had led his armies to the crusades in The Holy Land.He too squandered vast amounts of money first on the crusades and later on the ransom money to buy him out of captivity in Germany.Richard died in 1199 AD and his death led to a
fratricidal war between his younger brothers Arthur and our King John. The latter won this bitter struggle
and it is rumoured that he had strangled Arthur to death.
Rebellion of the barons against the royalty was not new, this had happened during the reign of King Henry too.But, then the King had a lot of resources and ultimately the barons had to back down.The resentment stayed on, it was simmering.
The barons revolted again during King John’s reign and this time the French barons under the leadership of King Augustus took up arms.Augustus ordered John to stand trial in France to which the latter refused.Augustus then declared that John had forfeited all the territories in France and the Capetians assumed control of Normandy and all the territories south of Loire.
John had to retreat to England.
Meanwhile, the barons had come to know of the assassination of Arthur, the younger brother of King John.The king , however, started his preparations for an all out assault on France to regain control over his lost dominions.Naturally, he levied fresh taxes on his nobles and this led to a series of conflicts that ultimately led to the enactment of Magna Carta.
Relations with the Church
The Plantagenets , over the years, had been making the Church their enemies.King Henry was widely blamed by many to have murdered Thomas Becket, a declared saint, in the Cathedral of Canterbury. He had heavily taxed the members of the Church too!
King John followed Henry in his persecution of the Church and demanded that a particular favourite of his be elevated in the Church.It was refused by the Pope Innocent who along with his faithful elected a man, Langton to the same post.John opposed this appointment and in response, Innocent stopped all operations of the Church.The dead were denied the final rites and the faithful, the sacraments.This continued for six months.
The French were scanning the events in England and preparing to invade.John was terrified of the impending doom but then did a masterstroke.He made friends with the Pope, accepted his overlordship and then attacked France.
Yet again, John was defeated in the battlefield and was forced to return to England.The barons, tired of his excesses besieged him and thus came Magna Carta!