This year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the Great Charter that is the foundation of English liberties that we Americans are heirs to.
Documents like Magna Carta were commonplace in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, when the authority of kings was strictly restricted by nobles, commons and the Church. However, what is unusual about Magna Carta is its vitality. The English never forgot it, and whenever there was political upheaval in ages to come after 1215, the cry of Magna Carta was ever heard.
One of the significant features of Magna Carta is the first paragraph:
(1) FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church’s elections – a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it – and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity.
The one man most important in the struggle to bring Magna Carta about was Cardinal Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. King John opposed his appointment as Archbishop by Pope Innocent III in 1207, and the long struggle between King and Cardinal became the centerpiece of the struggle between John and his rebellious Barons, who looked for leadership from Langton, the most brilliant English cleric of his day, and who became the soul of the movement opposing the King. The worst English King confronted the mightiest English Archbishop and the King blinked.
When the Barons forced John into signing Magna Carta, they gave pride of place to the freedom of the Catholic Church that had stood with them in their struggle against a tyrant King. This was typical of the Middle Ages. Fighting over Church-State issues helped develop a tradition in Europe that resistance to encroachment upon rights by the King was not sinful, but rather praise worthy. The King himself was not above the Law, or oaths he had sworn to God, and the Church, in guarding her rights, often became associated with the rights of the nobles and commons, for Kings encroaching upon the rights of the Church, also were often encroaching upon the rights of their subjects.