Nobody in their right mind would have ‘put a penny bet on the Magna Carta’s survival’ back in 1215, former lord chief justice Igor Judge asserted today.
And yet 800 years on, ‘this wonderful living instrument survives in a healthy, robust and exciting form’.
In a lecture ‘Magna Carta – Accident or Destiny?’ Judge reminded delegates at the Global Law Summit in London that Magna Carta was always intended to fail. ‘King John swore an oath that he was acting in good faith and yet even before the wax had hardened, he had asked Pope Innocent III to annul it.’
The pope did not mince his words. ‘Magna Carta,’ he proclaimed, ‘would have no validity at any time whatsoever.’
But the charter had a life of its own, said Judge. It contains words and principles that have resonated until today, such as ‘liberties’, ‘rights’, ‘law of the land’ and ‘council’, which in time became parliament. The separation of the judiciary from the executive also has its origins in the charter, with the provision that enforcement officers could henceforth not also be judges. ‘It was equality before the law in gestation,’ said Judge.
He continued that John died the year after the charter was sealed, passing his throne on to the infant Henry III who reigned under the supervision of an elected regent – the fact of his being elected marking the imminent demise of the absolute power of the monarchy.
The regent, in 1216, reissued the charter, which was subsequently reissued another 50 times by successive kings. By the time of the civil war in the 17th century, the charter, Judge said, was being cited to curb the divine right of monarchs and to assert the sovereignty of parliament.
Judge, who had compressed this history lesson into a 15-minute address, concluded: ‘The Magna Carta principles didn’t survive by accident. They are a living instrument, revered globally, and in another 800 years our descendants should still be celebrating it.’