David Eyles is a Dorset livestock farmer.
The previous article was concerned principally with the finer detail of the Magna Carta; with the way in which it was a response to correct the individual abuses of feudal law by King John. But there are two clauses whose significance was nothing short of revolutionary. Clause 60 stated unequivocally that everything in this document applied equally to the king as well as to his subjects. Given the prevailing system of absolute power of the Angevin kings, this clause is astonishing enough as it grants an equality that was inconceivable before. But it is clause 61 which goes even further. It ensured that politics in England would never be the same again and furthermore that the character of law and politics in England were sundered from that of continental Europe. Clause 61 is long and in eight paragraphs. It gives the remedies to the barons if John should fail to keep his side of the bargain. Twenty five barons were elected to bring any offence of John or his agents to his attention and seek redress. In translation, this is what it says: “If we…..make no redress within forty days…..the twenty five barons ….may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.” This remarkable clause gives licence for rebellion against the king if those twenty five are agreed of the need to do so. Schama, so eloquently, puts it thus: “So, if Magna Carta was not the birth certificate of freedom it was the death certificate of despotism. It spelled out for the first time, and unequivocally, something with which the Angevins themselves, as the highest justices in the realm, could not conceivably quarrel: that the law was not simply the will or the whim of the king but was an independent power in its own right, and that kings could be brought to book for violating it……..All this, in turn, presupposed something hitherto unimaginable: that there was some sort of English ‘state’ of which the king was part (albeit the supreme part) but not the whole.”
The delicate balance between the power of the king and his nobles, or the executive and Parliament, remained a subject for discussion, with varying degrees of violence, for the next 800 years. The principle of legal opposition to the executive has now been enshrined in parliamentary process by the gradual evolution of the party system. This has obviated the need for revolution and replaced it with elections if the electorate disagrees with the executive.