This week marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of one of the most historic documents of world history. On June 15th 1215,at Runnymeade in England,King John signed what became known as Magna Carta-the Great Charter. The significance of Magna Carta is that it laid down,for the first time,limits on the power of a king over his subjects,established the idea that a person could only be imprisoned following a trial by his peers (jury trial),and that the king could not tax his subjects without their consent-or the consent of their elected representatives.
The Charter promised that justice would not be bought or sold,or denied to any person. While most of Magna Carta has long since been repealed and the document was denounced by the then Pope and ignored by many subsequent rulers,it laid the basis for modern democracy. The idea that no-one is above the law remains at the heart of all democracies today-including our own Republic.
The Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution is drawn directly from Magna Carta and many of those who drew up the U.S Constitution in the 1780s were of Irish origin The laws administered here in the courts of Westmeath and the Dail in which this county is represented are ultimately derived from Magna Carta. Those who first signed the document included the Archbishop of Dublin,Henry de Londres,and William Marshal,Lord of Leinster.
King John is generally regarded as the worst king in English history-cruel and greedy. He was appointed as Lord of Ireland in 1185 by his father,King Henry II.and it was intended that he should be crowned eventually as King of an Ireland seperate from England and linked with England only as part of a French speaking Empire which also included much of France and parts of Scotland,Wales and modern Belgium.
Because all his older brothers died without heirs this plan never became reality and John ended up ruling both England and Ireland in 1199. His record as a ruler in Ireland was actually a lot better than in England. He was reasonably competant and fair in his dealings with the native Irish.
He dealt with local rulers such as Cathal Croav Dearag of Connacht as equals and generally kept his word in the agreements he made with them. Among his achievements in Ireland was his decision to make Dublin the national capital and to introduce an Irish coinage-bearing pictures of native wildlife such as salmon.
He had Dublin Castle built as an administrative centre and also had the Castle at Athlone built-recognising the huge strategic significance of Westmeath’s second town as a gateway to the West along the Shannon in the heart of the country. As Lord of Ireland,he would have been involved in the granting of the right to the burgesses of Mullingar to hold a Fair in 1207-the earliest known grant of a fair to the town.
King John actually visited Westmeath in 1210. He arrived in Ireland in June to wage a campaign aimed at putting manners on the rebellious Anglo-Norman Barons of Meath and Ulster. Walter De Lacy,Lord of Meath (Westmeath was then part of the Liberty of Meath),and his brother,Hugh De Lacy,Lord of Ulster,were becoming too powerful and were upsetting the political stability of Ireland.
John occupied Trim,the capital of Meath and met with Cathal Crobderg O Connor at Ardbraccan. John’s campaign was not one of English v Irish;the Irish rulers such as O Connor were largely fighting alongside the King. John also visited Rathwire-then an important Anglo-Norman settlement with a castle and manor.John was there on August 10th and had another meeting with Cathal Crovderg.
He then moved north to deal with the rebellious Anglo-Normans of Ulster. By the end of August he had succeeded in his campaign and returned to England.King John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his 9 year old son Henry. King Henry III would reign for fifty six years and would issue further charters granting fairs to Westmeath towns such as Mullingar.
He also issued what is considered the definitive version of Magna Carta in 1225,
The Charter was extended to Ireland in February 1217 by William Marshal-Lord of Leinster,who was acting as a Regeant on behalf of the child king. This was intended to extend to the peoples of Ireland the same rights as had been granted to the King’s English subjects. It marked the beginnings of Common Law in Ireland-the legal system under which we still live.
King John was the only reigning English monarch to visit Westmeath.
By Ruth Illingworth