10/2015 - News release
Magna Carta Barons found 'not guilty' of treason against King John
31 July 2015
Three of the world's top judges this evening found representatives of the Magna Carta barons not guilty of treason, in a special event organised by the UK Supreme Court and the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee.
The mock trial saw two senior barristers debating whether King John's actions in the run-up to 1215 justified the terms the barons forced him to agree in the form of Magna Carta, and the extent to which rebellion against the King can be acceptable in the eyes of the law.
The event was witnessed by 800 people in the surroundings of Westminster Hall, in the Palace of Westminster.
The three judges - Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer of the US Supreme Court, and Dame Sian Elias, Chief Justice of New Zealand - left the stage to confer after hearing argument from James Eadie QC for the prosecution and Nathalie Lieven QC for the defence.
Historic witnesses including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (played by Lord Lisvane) and intermediary William Marshal (played by Lord Judge) also assisted the court with evidence.
Historians suggest there are three types of treason: lèse-majestè, unjustified threatening the King's life or the betrayal of the realm or the army; proditio, unjustified default of duty which injured the King or any unjustified plotting against the King; and infidelitas, unjustified violation of an oath of fidelity to the King.
Lord Neuberger concluded two concurring judgments by Justice Breyer and Dame Sian sparing the barons from a terrible fate. He said: "In relation to each type of treason, it is necessary to show that the action complained of was 'unjustified'. For the reasons given so eloquently and clearly by my two colleagues, I would hold that, in all the circumstances, the prosecution has failed to show that the defendants' actions were unjustified. Accordingly, I, too, would acquit Baron Fitzwalter and the other 24 defendants of the charge of the treason."
Commenting on the decision, Sir Robert Worcester, Chairman of the Magna Carta Anniversary Committee, said: "This decision was far from inevitable, but just goes to show how the bravery and determination of those barons eight hundred years ago rings down the centuries as a justified act of rebellion. Those of us living today in democracies which take the rule of law seriously are reaping the benefits of the barons' bold demonstration against King John.
"This was a thrilling event and I am so pleased that the judges have vindicated the men who took considerable risks to secure freedoms we still enjoy today."
Professor David Carpenter, who played Baron FitzWalter and served as a historical advisor for the event, said: "It was a close run thing. We saw two excellent advocates pitted against each other over a series of fundamental questions which still have resonance today. I agree that the barons should have treated John with more respect. Had they not humiliated him after Runnymede, the country might have been spared the subsequent civil war. On the other hand, I think the verdict broadly supporting Magna Carta is absolutely right. It would have been right then and it is right now."
Clive Anderson, who played King John, said: "I am sure King John would have been astonished and possibly enraged by this verdict, and would be considering what further steps he could take to deal with the Judges and the Barons who defied his authority".
Ben Wilson - Head of Communications
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