Oh the irony! When angry nobles forced a limit to King John’s despotic powers over them 800 years ago – Magna Carta! – they and he little knew that down the centuries they were bequeathing to even the lowliest of the land that which we value most highly today – that no one, not even the monarch, is above the law, and that all are protected from the arbitrary application of justice.
Indirectly, we owe our Canadian parliamentary form of government to Magna Carta – the Great Charter. Of course Parliament, with its House and Senate, is now only notionally a check on the monarchy. The issue of the divine right of kings was settled long ago, most notably when King Charles I was beheaded by parliamentary victors after the English Civil War. Parliament instead is now a forum wherein the people’s concerns are discussed, where the people’s policies are decided and where governments’ powers can be checked. If enough people are unhappy or want change, they can defeat governments at the ballot box. This legacy of Magna Carta is enjoyed not only here, but in true democracies around the world.
But Magna Carta’s greatness doesn’t end there. Not only is the law supreme, thanks to the Great Charter of 1215, but no citizen can be imprisoned or otherwise punished except by the law, and by the judgement of his peers. As Magna Carta says, “No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.”
This is a tremendous legacy for which all Canadians, all free people everywhere, should be grateful. But Magna Carta’s influence today extends beyond these two great principles. Please, as we approach the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter in 2015, take some time to learn more about its legacy.