The men who were responsible for the Great Charter of 1215 asserted one great principle. In their view the realm was more than a geographic or administrative unit. It was a community. As such, it was capable of possessing rights and liberties … which could be asserted against any member of the community, even and especially against the King.
Sir James Holt, historian, author of
‘Magna Carta’, Cambridge, rev. ed. 2015.
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed or freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
‘The Charter became in the process of time an enduring witness that the power of the Crown was not absolute…. And when in subsequent ages the State, swollen with its own authority, has attempted to ride roughshod over the rights or liberties of the subject it is to this doctrine that appeal has again and again been made, and never, as yet, without success.’
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
We who serve in the Temple Church value its long past; and we value, just as highly, its present and steadily expanding role in the life of legal London and of the whole Common Law world. All of us who work here are building on a long and dramatic past in order to serve the future.
In 1608 King James I entrusted the Church to Inner and Middle Temple, two of London’s ancient colleges of attorneys and judges, the Inns of Court. The Inns have maintained the Church with pride and generosity ever since. In our ever more complex and interconnected world, the Inns want their Church to look outwards, to
deepen and broaden our links with other jurisdictions, and to represent as the Inns’ ambassador the ideals and principles of the Rule of Law.
As England’s constitutional crisis deepened from 1212, the Temple was King John’s headquarters at the western end of the City of London. From the Temple were issued two of the vital charters – on the freedoms of the Church and of the city of London – that preceded Magna Carta itself.
In January 1215 the King was here for over a week. It was at Epiphany: the King would have displayed on the Church’s altar all the regalia that confirmed his own kingship under the greater rule of Christ. The King was assailed here by the demands of his barons, in famously fraught negotiations that opened the road to Runnymede. It was then, in the Temple, that the rebel barons first demanded of the King an enforceable charter of rights. The King refused.
The King was back in the Temple for a week at Easter, 16-22 April, and again 7-9 May. By June the rebels held London. It was clear that the King must grant a charter as demanded by the barons. At Runnymede, on 15 June 1215, Magna Carta was sealed. Within weeks the Pope annulled it, as a shameful document exacted under duress by barons who had acted as judges in their own cause and had effectively dethroned the King. Magna Carta was, in 1215, a failure.
Enter the Charter’s hero: William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, the most powerful man in the kingdom and famously loyal. He had mediated between King and barons all through 1215. When John died in October 1216, William became Regent of the boy-king Henry III. William re-issued Magna Carta, in a more conciliatory form, under his own seal. He regathered the baronage to the young King’s side. He defeated the French in person, when he was over 70 years old, at the Battle of Lincoln. He then re-issued the Charter once more.
William Marshal died in 1219, and was buried in the Temple Church, in the Round Church, in front of the rood-screen and nave-altar. His effigy still lies in the Round. The man who saved Magna Carta for all generations is still honoured in the Church of the attorneys and judges whose whole professional life is built upon the foundations that he laid.
The Charter’s most famous clauses still inform any polity that can lay claim to the Rule of Law:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
It is inspiring to watch the spread of these principles across the Atlantic and around the world:
The General Assembly of Maryland, 1639. The Inhabitants of this Province shall have all their rights and liberties according to the Great Charter of England.
The Body of Liberties, Massachusetts, 1641. No man’s life shall be taken away, no man’s honour or good name shall be stained, no man’s person shall be arrested, restrained, banished, dismembered, nor any ways punished…unless it be by virtue or equity of some express law of the Country warranting the same.
Acts and Orders for the Colony … of Providence, 1647. That no person, in this Colony, shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his lands or liberties, or be exiled, or any other otherwise molested or destroyed, but by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by some known law, and according to the letter of it, ratified and confirmed by the major part of the General Assembly lawfully met and orderly managed.
Constitution of the United States of America, from the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, 15 December 1791: No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…The accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.
Constitution of the United States of America, from the Fourteenth Amendment, 9 July 1868: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United Sates and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Constitution of the Union of Burma, 1947. Article 16: No citizen shall be deprived of his personal liberty, nor his dwelling entered, nor his property confiscated, save in accordance with law.
The Constitution of India, 1950. Article 21: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
The Constitution of Malaysia, 1957. Article 5 (1): No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty save in accordance with law.
The European Convention on Human Rights, 1953. Abbreviated from Articles 5-7: Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be deprived of his liberty save in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law. Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.
The Canadian Bill of Rights, 1960. Article 1 (a) confirms: The right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property, and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law.
The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the middle ages. It was written in Magna Charta. In the Americas its impact has been irresistible. America has been the New World in all tongues, to all peoples, not because this continent was a new-found land, but because all those who came here believed they could create upon this continent a new life – a life that should be new in freedom.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from
The Third Inaugural Address, 20 January 1941