June 15 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, or Great Charter, a document which the barons of England used to limit the rights of King John.
The usual vision of John is a foul-hearted villain, usurping the rights, lands and riches of anyone he wished whenever he wished. Daniel Wiser reviews a new book on John and Magna Carta here in the Washington Free Beacon and notes that this view of John may owe more to Robin Hood movies than to reality. The book is by Stephen Church, a history professor at the University of East Anglia.
And it's movies and novels that give us most of our picture of John, the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine who took the throne when his brother Richard the Lion-Hearted died in 1199. Far closer to reality, Church says, is a portrait that shows John as simply vain and inept. He inherited a kingdom encompassing both England and France and wound up chased out of France before his own barons put the kibosh on his increasing taxation and decreasing effectiveness. In 1215, they hammered out a deal with their king that listed some of the things he could do on his own and some things he was forbidden to do. The specifics, as Wiser notes, were less important than the idea that a king could be constrained by laws. John didn't necessarily grant any new rights to his people, but instead pledged to uphold already existing just customs and laws.
He managed to muck it all up before the year was out until doing his nation his greatest service -- dying while his son was only nine and appointing the brilliant William Marshal as his advisor. Marshal reissued Magna Carta, indicating that future kings would consider themselves bound by it as well. The Tudors had some problems with the idea of limits on their power, which were also taken up by their Stuart cousins and successors. The lawyer Edward Coke revived it and used it to thwart Stuart ambitions until Oliver Cromwell and company punctuated the argument just under Charles I's chin. Other nations also adopted some idea of its provisions to varying degrees.
America's founders paid a great deal of attention to Magna Carta but took it even further, as one might expect from a group of people who figured the right answer to "Who needs a king?" was, "Nobody."
The document has little real effect today, concerning as it does the rights of a class of wealthy and powerful nobles rather than of everyday people. But the idea of it is a foundational piece of representative government.
And we still have plenty of leaders who are vain and inept. That seems to have remained unchanged in the years between the 13th century and the 21st, and probably will remain so.