Yesterday, 15 June 2014 (next year will be the eighth centenary year of this great event), was the anniversary of the Magna Carta (Great Charter). King John was the monarch who followed his brother, King Richard the Lion-Hearted in 1199. He was, unlike his brother, not a popular nor a successful king. He lost the Duchy of Normandy to the French King. He taxed the English nobility heavily to pay for his foreign (unsuccessful) misadventures which included quarreling with Pope Innocent III. Finally the English nobility, with an infinitely stronger military than those loyal to the king, revolted against his rule in 1215. As a result King John put his royal seal on the Magna Carta, essentially a peace treaty between John and his barons, which guaranteed that the king would respect feudal rights and privileges, uphold the freedom of the church, and maintain the nation’s laws. Although more a reactionary than a progressive document in its day, the Magna Carta was seen as a cornerstone in the development of democratic England by later generations.
The charter consisted of a preamble and 63 clauses and dealt mainly with feudal concerns that had little impact outside 13th century England. However, the document was remarkable in that it implied there were laws the king was bound to observe, thus precluding any future claim to absolutism by the English monarch. Of greatest interest to later generations was clause 39, which stated that “no free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised…except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” This clause has been celebrated as an early guarantee of trial by jury and of habeas corpus and inspired England’s Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679).
In immediate terms, the Magna Carta was a failure – civil war broke out the same year, and John ignored his obligations under the charter. Upon his death in 1216, however, the Magna Carta was reissued with some changes by his son, King Henry III, and then reissued again in 1217. That year, the rebellious barons were defeated by the king’s forces. In 1225, Henry III voluntarily reissued the Magna Carta a third time, and it formally entered English statute law.
The Magna Carta has been subject to a great deal of historical exaggeration; it did not establish Parliament, as some have claimed, nor more than vaguely allude to the liberal democratic ideals of later centuries. However, as a symbol of the sovereignty of the rule of law, it was of fundamental importance to the constitutional development of England. Four original copies of the Magna Carta of 1215 exist today: one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Museum.
In South Africa we have a winery, Steenberg, who have issued their own Magna Carta Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2011. This wine was the most expensive wine at the recent Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show at R490 a bottle. I tasted some. It was good, as one would expect for a wine which won the Grande Roche Trophy for the Best White Blend at the 2014 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show with a score of 95, but it was not, in my opinion, worthy R490 a bottle. Not even with the charming history of the Magna Carta and its 800 year anniversary next year.
The wine maker, Pretorius, thinks that the wine is elegant, harmonious, and, well, just lovely really. He is very proud of it – like the English are of their Magna Carta.