Monday, 15 June 2015

Magna Carta - And Why The Pope Tried To Kill It

On this the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it's worth spending a few minutes remembering how fortunate we are that the Pope Innocent III didn't succeed in his determination to annul it and put an end to this dangerous idea of equality before the law.

Although it was probably never intended as such, Magna Carta has become one of the most important documents in history, being regarded as the origins of several basic principles now taken for granted:

  • The idea of equality before the law. This establishes the right to a fair trial and the rule of precedent in law. What applied in one case to one person should apply in all cases to all people.
  • The idea of trial by a jury of one's peers. This puts the people in charge of issues like what are the actions of a reasonable person, etc.
  • Legal constraints on the power of the head of state. This establishes the independence of the judiciary and the right of habeas corpus. It also established the principle that the monarch can't raise arbitrary taxes without the consent of Parliament.

Before then, there was nothing to stop the monarch having anyone arbitrarily executed on any pretext, or locking them away to rot in some castle dungeon somewhere, and many did just that. But what really exercised the barons under King John was that there was nothing to stop the monarch taxing them and using the money as he saw fit. In fact, Magna Carta was intended to be more a peace treaty between John and his revolting barons and included, amongst other things, the agreement that the barons would hand London back to to John - something that was immediately reneged on by the barons. John only ever saw it as something he signed under duress and never intended to do anything other than buy him time.

So where does Pope Innocent III fit into all this?

Innocent III had previously excommunicated John, partly to curry favour with the King Phillip Augustus of France, and partly as a reprisal for his taxing the churches. In order to bring the church back on side, John agreed to compensate the Pope and the Church with lots of money, and to submit to him as his feudal liege-lord, making Innocent III de jure titular ruler of England and the English possessions in France. The Pope in return declared Magna Carta null and void.

Lotario dei Conti di Segni, Pope Innocent III
Innocent III was probably one of the most unpleasant characters to hold the title 'Pope'. He is notorious largely on accounts of actions which, if they were repeated today, would be rightly regarded as crimes against humanity:
  • He ordered the suppression and massacre of the Cathars of the Languedoc region of southern France, to help his protector, King Phillip Augustus control his southern barons, and because they had declined to pay tithes.
  • He ordered a crusade against Moorish Spain, which was then most of the Iberian Peninsula other than a couple of Christian kingdoms in the far north, and the subsequent massacre of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.
  • He ordered the Fourth Crusade against Egypt in which, when the Christian army reached Constantinople where it mistook the Orthodox Christian population for Muslims, it promptly sacked the city and massacred the inhabitants. Innocent III then declared this to have been the will of God in order to re-unite the Eastern and Western Churches, under Pope Innocent III, naturally.

It's maybe worth mentioning that a 'crusade' consisted of giving a rag-tag bunch of mercenary soldiers, under the nominal control of a handful of princes, kings and dukes, free licence to loot, pillage, rape and massacre their way across Europe, the Balkans and Asia Minor and into the Holy Lands with no regard to the religion of those they slaughtered and robbed. They were not paid or supplied but were expected to take what they wanted from the citizenry of any towns or villages they came across on their journey - something they did with enthusiasm, routinely massacring the entire population to the applause of the Pope who declared every death a triumph for Jesus.

Innocent III's crusades probably accounted for far more Christian deaths than Muslim deaths, despite the entire population of cities and town in the 'Holy Lands' being slaughtered with loud boastings about the depth of the blood in the streets. Jews, of course, were almost routinely slaughtered wherever they were found.

Innocent III was an unashamed despot, murderous psychopath and dedicated autocrat who saw the slightest hint of independent thought or disobedience as high treason, blasphemy and heresy. Innocent III ruled Earth on behalf of God because God had chosen him. He did this by controlling his cardinals, bishops, clergy and monks and 'consenting' to allow the local autocrat or king to run his estate under the watchful eye of the local clergy. It was a neat arrangement with Innocent III at the top of the pinnacle, accountable to no-one but God, who somehow always agreed with Innocent III, and the hoi polloi arranged in ranks below, each having a divinely assigned role and everyone neatly in their place.

And then along came some upstart barons demanding their own say in matters and insisting that the king be accountable to a court of law and not the Pope!

So, in return for a lot of money, in the best tradition of selling indulgences, John's sins were forgiven, his excommunication reversed, and Magna Carta was ruled null and void.

Of course, Innocent III could call on good, solid biblical authority for this autocracy:

Political power in the Bible is only ever autocratic and absolute, the sole right of kings and emperors and those able to exert power through force of arms. If this is ever mentioned it is only ever to endorse it. The frankest outright endorsement of autocratic government, often quoted to support the 'divine right' of kings, was in Paul's epistle to the Romans where he leaves no doubt about his sect's fawning attitude to authority.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God [my emphasis]. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.

Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Romans 13:1-7

English Angevin posessions in France
Nowhere in the Bible does any prophet or apostle ever advocate government of the people, by the people and for the people nor do any of them ever decry its absence. There is not a single word calling for equality before the law or legal constraints on government powers.

But, John was not long for this world. The barons had invited the French to invade to depose John, who promptly scuppered their plans by dying of dysentery on 19th October 1216, just 16 months after signing Magna Carta. Suddenly John's successor, Henry III, or rather, as a nine year-old king, the leading barons who ran the country for him, realised his throne was in danger, not just in England but his possessions in France, and he quickly needed a united kingdom.

The barons had been at war not with the monarchy but with John personally and had decided it was better French and rid of John than English and ruled by him. Suddenly, the equation changed and they now had a potentially malleable child king all of their very own - but the French were keen to at least take back the English possessions in France and put Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Aquitaine, back in his rightful place as a fief (and ward) of the French crown.

What better than this wonderful charter of rights to grant his barons if they joined forces with him? And so Henry III became champion of the agreement his father John had been forced to sign under duress.

Now of course, the only state in the world still run on those biblical, pre-Charter, Christian principles is the Vatican City. All the civilised nations abandoned them long ago and look to Magna Carta, not the Bible, as their founding document. Not surprisingly, when a handful of would-be despots, helped and supported by the Catholic Church, established fascist regimes in a number of European and South American countries in the early 20th-century, amongst their first actions was to abolish democracy, independent judiciaries, trial by jury and the writ of habeas corpus, and established rule by decree, Just as Pope Innocent III would have wished.


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2 comments :

  1. Nowhere in the Bible does any prophet or apostle ever advocate government of the people, by the people and for the people nor do any of them ever decry its absence. There is not a single word calling for equality before the law or legal constraints on government powers.

    Well, of course not. The Abrahamic vision has the entire universe as an absolute dictatorship whose caudillo is always right about everything and holds his position forever. The only freedom humans have is the "free will" to sin and go to Hell for all eternity. Not much scope for freedom or limited government there, only for obedience to the will of the omniscient dictator, as conveniently passed along by figures like Innocent III.

    It's worth noting that even long before the Magna Carta, Classical Greece had some of the same protections that the Church and its minions have tried to stamp out -- inalienable rights for free citizens and, at least in the case of Macedonia, trial by jury. Of course Classical Greece is now generally condemned by Christianists because it was a pagan culture and accepting of homosexuality.

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    1. Someone should remind fundamentalist Christians of these points whenever they claim that America was built on Christian values. No, America was built on Enlightenment values, not the autocratic values of the Bible.

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