Over the next few months there will be all sorts of fuss over the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in June. Over the centuries it has passed into legend as the dawn of democracy.
Let me tell you a secret: At the time, it was no such thing.
The barons had had enough of King John riding roughshod over everyone, and finally gained enough support to threaten him. He reluctantly agreed to the barons' demands and, after some negotiation, set his seal to them.
Another secret: King John didn't sign the charter – he couldn't write, he had people to do that for him.
So the barons had brought the King to heel, and democracy dawned, yes?
No. John had already written to the Pope about what his barons were trying to do to him, and within a few weeks the Pope absolved him from any compliance at all.
But Magna Carta was enforced when John died, and that was the dawn of democracy and rights for all.
No. Democracy was only for 10 percent of the people. Magna Carta is specifically for freemen. Most of the population were serfs and had no rights, and the charter did not apply to women.
So what's all the fuss?
The fuss is really about the idea that the king is not above the law. This was the first time the king's power was reigned in. Until then, the rule had been 'the divine right of kings', which meant they could do anything they wanted. Previous kings had had some respect for their subjects, even though they often treated them badly. King John used his subjects for his own ends, and paid the price. Magna Carta made sure (when it was eventually enforced) that no king would ever do the same.