Magna Carta as the Death Sentence to Despotism and Dictatorship

Published: 2021-09-11 02:05:09
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Death of Dictatorship
The Magna Carta, often credited as the first demonstration of a ruler being subjected to his own laws, is a crucial piece of history due to its symbolic value. Hailed as “the birth certificate of democracy,” many believe the Magna Carta is not only a symbol of civil liberties, but the original starting point of them. Others believe it is less of a democratic birth, as that arises later, and described it as an end of dictatorship. This is well illustrated by Simon Schama’s claim that Magna Carta is nothing more than “the death certificate of despotism” (Moore). The level of the Magna Carta’s significance has long been disputed, but is impossible to say the Magna Carta is the death of despotism and not the birth of democracy because it is the death of despotism that allowed democracy to be forged. It was not necessarily the Magna Carta that ended despotism and created democracy, it was the chain reaction it began.
The Magna Carta as a major birth or death seems extreme when taken into account Pope Innocent III annulled the original Charter “only weeks after King John sealed it” (Urquhart). But this was not the end of the Magna Carta. Later, James’s son, Henry III “reissued the charter in 1225” and it became official law again in 1297 (Beray 40). Though the Magna Carta is not the first example of an English King solidifying feudal custom into a legal document, it is regarded as the earliest of note. Even “before Henry II had established permanent courts” and a legal code, the feudal system of rights and requirements had already been “partially codified by Henry I in his charter of liberties”(Breay 28; The British Library Online). A century before that, the laws already demonstrated that the monarch was accountable to a traditional understanding of a king’s responsibilities.The Charter did not even, strictly speaking, bring an end to King John’s despotism. After it was “revoked by a papal bull,” every baron who signed it was excommunicated by the church and John went on a vengeful rampage until he died of dysentery the next year (Breay 28). By this means, the Magna Carta does not end despotism, but this is not what is referred to in the claim. He is referring to what it came to represent to future generations, not in 1215. Centuries later, Magna Carta would be used as evidence for law superseding even the word of the monarch. They understood the common law as “composed of determinate rules, the bulk of which derived from general custom” (Cromartie 99). This point of view is consistent with the thoughts of others from the late Tudor period who were hopeful that “some expert and learned man would take upon himself to set forth plainly, sincerely, and faithfully the whole course of laws used” (Cromartie 98). This, of course, meant that the King was not the highest authority but was subject himself to the conventions of the past. The idea of common law, it seems, had been “firmly established on the shoulders of Magna Carta,” which represented the re-elevation of English custom to its proper place above the arbitrary rule of the monarch (Snagg).
Claiming the Magna Carta is “the death certificate of despotism,” not “the birth certificate of modern democracy,” fails to apply equal standards to each claim. The Magna Carta can only be considered the end to despotism if its long term rather than its short term impact is considered. Historically, it was not the Magna Carta, but instead its main idea of kings being subject to law that eventually led to the end of government being ruled by will and desire rather than law. If the Magna Carta is interpreted in this idealized way, then it must also be one of the earliest and largest contributors to modern democracy, for the ideas attributed to it, namely common law and individual liberty, are cornerstones of liberal democracy. The Magna Carta must be regarded as the birth certificate of democracy if it is to be the representative death certificate of despotism, because the birth of common law resulted from the death of the royal edict.

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