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Friday, 23 January 2015

The Birth of English Democracy

This illustration shows the signing of the Magna Carta.
On the 20th January 2015 marked the 750th anniversary of England's first Parliament which was celebrated by the BBC with Democracy Day. This year also marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta where without the Magna Carta the first Parliament could not have happened. Thanks to these two events just fifty years apart England, and later the United Kingdom, managed to become the fully fledged democracy that it is today. Let us start with the Magna Carta, the manuscript that created British democracy.
Background to the Magna Carta being signed- The story of the Magna Carta lies with King John III, fans of Robin Hood would recognize him as the king in the adaptations. King John became King after his brother Richard I, (Richard the Lionheart), and inherited a weak economy after his brother spent a great chunk of the treasury on crusades and paying his own ransom. English Kings also had to make sure barons were on their side if they wanted to raise taxes and the best way to do this was through military victories abroad. John however made a major blunder and lost his land in northern France in 1204 which upset the barons which he inflamed matters further by raising taxes without consulting the barons. He also upset the Pope by meddling in Church affairs which infuriated the Pope who closed churches in 1207 and excommunicated John in 1209. With England being Catholic and the Pope holding more authority in the eyes of the people than monarchs this made matters worse. By 1214 John had to give massive concessions to the Catholic Church to re-communicate him, he lost trying to retake northern France and barons refused to let him raise taxes.

The Magna Carta- In 1215 25 barons met with king John at Runnymede near the baron's base of Staines and the King's fortress of Windsor Castle on the 10th June, 1215. The barons drafted a charter which would lay down the basic foundations of modern day democracies. This included the separation of state and Church, that everyone could have access to the court regardless of wealth, forbade the King from issuing unreasonable taxes and laws as well as forbidding that any freeman not to be imprisoned or punished without previously going through a legal system. John left his royal seal at the bottom of the document, (he didn't actually sign it but his seal was quite literally the seal of approval), and the document was called the 'Articles of the Barons' and later the Great Charter or the Magna Carta.
The King's seal
The First Baron's War and subsequent Charters- However the settlement lasted only six months where John refused to accept the Magna Carta. English kings ruled through an idea called 'the Divine Right' where God had chosen them to rule where John believed that the Magna Carta usurped this right. Also the Magna Carta forbade the King from approaching the Pope from nullifying laws that he disliked which John did by getting Pope Innocent III to denounce the Magna Carta as John did not willingly sign the bill. This caused a civil war called the First Baron's War where England's barons sided with either the King or the original rebel barons. The war lasted until 1217 where another Magna Carta called the magna carta libertatum or the 'Greater Charter of Liberties' was signed but both treaties soon became known as the Magna Carta. Following the 1217 treaty two other Magna Cartas were signed, one in 1225 and one in 1297, which slowly changed the English laws and allowed more liberty for the people. For example the original Magna Carta says 'freeman' when the laws such as freedom to a trial was set out which indicates that serfs, women and Jews were discounted but the subsequent Magna Cartas changed it to 'no man' so previous people discounted from the original like serfs, Jews and women could now be given a right to a fair trial, no unusual taxation etc. The different Magna Cartas, although many laws have changed since they were first written, make up the British Constitution so unlike the US Constitution the British is not written in one document that has amendments but simply entirely new treaties.
Simon de Montfort: the origin of Parliament
Simon de Montfort and the first Parliament- The next turning point for British democracy happened with the Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montford. It started with King Henry III, (John's son), ironically wanting more taxes to fund foreign exploits, in Sicily instead of France this time though. The barons however were fearful of Henry following his father's footsteps so tried to use the Magna Carta and an uprising to keep the king in check starting the Second Barons' War. Simon de Montford became the rebel leader and after defeating the king and his son at the Battle of Lewes was made the unofficial king of England but de Montford's hold was tenuous. He then decided to put the Magna Carta in action in an event which would change the history of England. de Montford organised a Parliament to be held on the 20th January, 1265 and would last until mid-March where barons, county knights and burgesses from major towns could represent their area. This marked the first step towards the modern day Parliament democracy system we have today in Britain, (although Scotland did have a Parliament since 1235 although it took until 1292 to become a major factor in Scottish life), and it expanded what the Magna Carta had tried to set out. Although far from a true democracy but rather a proto-democracy which set the standard for the future Parliament. Although de Montfort was killed in the Battle of Evesham later that year king Henry and his son Edward would continue with the Parliament at the same place where de Montford held his Parliament. This place was Westminster Palace and it was dubbed 'The House of Commons'. As Professor David Carpenter described de Montford's Parliament which inspired the trend: "We can't say for certain that the House of Commons wouldn't have evolved without Montfort's contribution, but he certainly accelerated its development." Without de Montford Parliament could have come about centuries later than it did.

The aftermath of de Montford and the Magna Carta- Both events of the 13th Century helped set a wave which would influence the full development of not just English but British democracy. The Magna Carta and growth of Parliament in strength led to the arguments between King Charles I and Parliament during the 17th Century where Parliament used the Magna Carta to challenge the King when he tried to deny Parliament's right. The fact that England had a Parliament coupled with the strength of the Scottish Parliament, (who was much more willing to deny the Scottish King compared to the English Parliament), could have helped make the union between Scotland and England much more easier which helped strengthen democracy in Great Britain. Extracts from the Magna Carta were used in the Declaration of Independence and notice how the Founding Founders criticized George III instead of the House of Commons. Napoleon who usurped attempts to make a liberal France called de Montford 'one of the greatest Englishmen', (de Montford was actually French ironically), and Nelson Mandela even quoted the Magna Carta during his 1964 trial speech! After all these years what was set out by the Magna Carta and Simon de Montford has led to the current system used in Britain; a thriving democratic, constitutional monarchy. It has allowed anyone to become Prime Minister including this man:
Thanks for reading and the next few posts I'll be doing a quickfire alternate history scenario that will range from realistic to slightly unrealistic. However I will be doing one scenario for every country so please any scenarios that you would want to see for a country. It could be anything from Japan never seeing the Meiji Restoration to de Montford becoming the actual King of England! Please leave any suggestions that you want.

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