Was Magna Carta Treason? No? How about Terrorism?

Luckily, Friday’s celebratory mock trial in London’s Palace of Westminster found the Magna Carta barons not guilty of treason against King John in 1215. Otherwise some of our most distinguished legal names and at least one TV celebrity host might be sizing up for orange jumpsuits.

The mock trial’s verdict – a special event organised by the UK Supreme Court and the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee – lifted any legal doubts about the justified righteousness of the rebel barons’ acts, eight centuries on.

But their modern day friends should take note. The Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 introduced a new offence of ‘encouragement ‘of terrorism, indirectly or otherwise, by ‘glorifying’ it.

Commenting on the verdict, Sir Robert Worcester, Chairman of the Anniversary Committee, celebrated “the bravery and determination” of the rebel barons. “I am so pleased that the judges have vindicated the men who took considerable risks to secure freedoms we still enjoy today.”

All good and thanks to them and m’learned friends then. But reviewing the Terrorism Act back in 2013, another eminent lawyer, David Anderson QC, found the 2000 Act’s “indiscriminate criminalisation of those attacking countries which are governed by tyrants and dictators… particularly striking.”

Tyrants like King John, perhaps? The Terrorism Act challenges the right to freedom of expression, eight hundred years on from the Magna Carta. It’s reasonable to speculate that celebrating the barons’ violent challenge to the state in this way – as justified as it was – might ‘technically’ qualify as glorifying terrorism under the Act.

  • Magna Carta panel, Washington Cathedral. Photo Tim Evanson / Flickr

The question was first raised by a presentation by artist and free expression rights expert Xenofon Kavvadias at the London Free Word Centre’s Alternative Magna Carta Festival on June 13.

It was a leap, Kavvadias conceded, for a modern audience “to realise how legally, politically, ethically and religiously, radical, extremist and intransigent the Barons’ demands, their actions and the agreement they finally achieved, were. “We have to contemplate and project how the vast majority of the people of England and the Pope as the supreme head of the Church, which invested John with the divine sanction for his kingship, understood this insurgency.”

What is ‘terrorism’ under the 2000 Act? It is where “the use or threat (of violence) is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and (where it is) made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.”

In a tongue-in-cheek but thought through piece for the well-known radical rag the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Selwood previewed the ‘trial’ with the thought that it looked “rather bleak” for the barons. “They raised arms against their king,” he wrote. “And they invited a Frenchman into London to take the throne. If that is not treason, then I do not know what is.”

But was it terrorism under the terms of the UK Terrorism Acts of 2000 & 2006?
Kavvadias suggests that Pope Innocent III, who claimed dominion over England in the name of the Church of Rome in King John’s time, would have taken the view that it was.

Pope Innocent, a lawyer himself, concluded in his August 1215 Papal Bull that “…even if the King had unjustly oppressed them, they ought not to have acted against him as to be at once judge and executioners in their own cause, vassals openly conspiring against their lord, knights against their king”.

Instead they “dared in conjunction with others, his declared enemies (the French), to make war against him, taking possession of, and ravaging his territories.”

So what were we celebrating? To quote today’s law, perhaps: “A statement (intentionally or recklessly) that is likely to be understood by members of the public as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”

Luckily again, one man’s insurgent terrorist is another man’s brave baron…

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