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Briefing Notes: Magna Carta

  • By Padraig Reidy
  • 12th June 2015
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It’s 800 years since Magna Carta was sealed. For this month's Briefing Notes, Padraig Reidy unpicks the myth and legacy of the charter and asks: what would happen if we were to write a new Magna Carta?

Have you ever read Magna Carta? It’s a strange document in parts, and perhaps strange to celebrate. Take this, for example:

“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands.”

It’s not exactly inspiring stuff, is it? One’s heart does not beat fast with pride. What about this?

“People who live outside the forest need not in future appear before the royal justices of the forest in answer to general summonses, unless they are actually involved in proceedings or are sureties for someone who has been seized for a forest offence.”

I mean, it’s sensible, and probably quite handy for the forest people, but one can’t imagine rushing to the barricades.

“Ordinary lawsuits shall not follow the royal court around, but shall be held in a fixed place.” Take that, Frenchie!

Admittedly, the most famous part of the Charter is quite noble, but the music of it is likely to be retrospectively implied: “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land.”

So it is not the stirring prose that makes it one of the most important things ever written. Nor is it necessarily the content, which is largely administrative, with a little bit of score settling thrown in (“We will remove completely from their offices the kinsmen of Gerard de Athée, and in future they shall hold no offices in England. The people in question are Engelard de Cigogné, Peter, Guy, and Andrew de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné, Geoffrey de Martigny and his brothers, Philip Marc and his brothers, with Geoffrey his nephew, and all their followers”).

What truly matters about Magna Carta is the myth: a friend described the signing of the charter as England’s first act of class war, to which the only correct response is “up to a point”. The barons who forced King John into sealing the charter were not especially concerned with revolution: rather, they were attempting to pin the throne to the obligations that had been outlined in the Charter of Liberties over 100 years before.

The Charter of Liberties, proclaimed by Henry I in 1100, concerned many of the issues later addressed in Magna Carta. The point was that nothing was really being done to uphold it: as its authority had come solely from the throne, it was up to the throne whether it was upheld or not.

Magna Carta was different. It’s written from the perspective of the throne, a series of pledges and promises, but we all know that it came from the barons. It’s reminiscent of the modern Queen’s speech, where the monarch is forced to read out the Prime Minister’s plans as if they were her own.

Perhaps, then, the story of Magna Carta is what introduces Britain to the idea of the king not as an absolute ruler but as a guarantor of laws. It implies that the king has not just power but responsibility. And it suggests that if a king is perceived to have failed in his responsibility, it might be legitimate to act against him, as Charles I learned all those years later.

Thus, contained in the myth of Magna Carta is an inkling of democracy: power is not top-down, or merely a matter of might.

All of this has repercussions for how the English see themselves: there is a curious founding myth based not so much on culture or struggle, but on the continuity of institutions. Only once in the 800 years since the Magna Carta has there been a great revolutionary upheaval, when, with the execution of King Charles and the installation of Oliver Cromwell, England briefly became a republic. When Cromwell died, England quite quickly went back to what was “normal”, that is to say a monarchy. Cromwell was, by the way, succeeded by his son, which suggests that no one, even the Cromwells themselves, ever really got the whole republic thing.

The parliamentary revolt is not really seen as such by the English, but rather as a necessary jolt to the system that in fact enabled the established order to progress. Cromwell’s statue stands outside parliament, close to that of Richard the Lionheart, brother of Magna Carta’s signatory, King John. John does not get a statue.

In his genuinely revolutionary work The Rights Of Man, published in 1791 after the American and French revolutions, Thomas Paine grasps the very core of Magna Carta as a means of facilitating the continuation of the old order rather than spurring a revolution: “Magna Charta [sic], as it was called […] was no more than compelling the government to renounce a part of its assumptions. It did not create and give powers to government in a manner a constitution does; but was, as far as it went, of the nature of a re-conquest, and not a constitution; for could the nation have totally expelled the usurpation, as France has done its despotism, it would then have had a constitution to form.”

Is this necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps not: it is argued that it is this gradualism, this flexibility in the system, that saved Britain from the brutal excesses of the far left and far right in the 20th century. Partly, this flexibility is down to the country’s much-vaunted lack of a written constitution. It turns out this idea in itself predates Magna Carta. As Jill Lepore notes in the New Yorker, as far back as 1188, the Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae (Treatise on the laws and customs of the Kingdom of England), overseen by King John’s tutor Ranulf de Glanvill, stated that it was “utterly impossible for the laws and rules of the realm to be reduced to writing.”

The odd pride in the unwritten nature of English institutions and customs, and by extension Englishness itself, is at odds with the worshipful quasi-scripturalism afforded the few documents which have done more to define Englishness than anything else: the charter, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Between these, one finds all the founding myth one needs.

What, then, would happen if we were to write a new Magna Carta? What would we state? To borrow from another founding document, what truths would we hold to be self-evident? Would it be a statement of human rights and civil liberties, or a commitment to the responsible husbandry of the land? Would it take in poverty? Housing?

Probably all these things. As with the original charter, we would have to concern ourselves with the quotidian as well as the ageless. But we’re left with one question still, one thing that has changed utterly since the time of John and the barons: once we’ve written the new charter, who do we demand gives their seal to it? Who has the power, and who should be held responsible?

The Alternative Magna Carta Festival is on Saturday 13 June at Free Word Centre. For tickets, click here.

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