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The greatest charter?

On 15 June 2015, Magna Carta celebrates its 800th anniversary. More has been written about this document than about virtually any other piece of parchment in world history. A great deal has been wrongly attributed to it: democracy, Habeas Corpus, Parliament, and trial by jury are all supposed somehow to trace their origins to Runnymede and 1215. In reality, if any of these ideas are even touched upon within Magna Carta, they are found there only in embryonic form. Some were not invented until the seventeenth century or even later; others can be found long before Runnymede, in the laws of the Anglo-Saxons or even in the laws of ancient Athens or Rome.

The Runnymede charter survived as English law for less than a dozen weeks. By September 1215, it had been repudiated by King, Pope, and barons. Why then does this document continue to inspire celebration not just in England but the USA and across the globe? Why do all shades of political opinion, from the most radical to the most reactionary, continue to venerate this failed peace treaty, almost as if it were holy writ?

The answer here lies in part with the document’s longevity. Stifled at birth by King John, it was revived just over a year later, in November 1216, following the death of John and the accession of his nine year-old son. The ministers of this boy king, Henry III, reissued Magna Carta in revised form. No longer a settlement imposed at sword point, it was now proclaimed as a promise of future good government. Shorn of the more obnoxious of the clauses agreed at Runnymede (above all of the subjection of the King to judgement by a committee of twenty-five barons) it was reissued again and again thereafter, more or less whenever political crisis forced the King into negotiation with his subjects. By 1297, it was being cited as a guarantee that the King would not tax his subjects without their consent: the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’, nearly five centuries in advance of the American Revolution of the 1770s.

The 1225 version of Magna Carta issued by Henry III of England. This copy is in the National Archives (London), DL 10/71.
The 1225 version of Magna Carta issued by Henry III of England. This copy is in the National Archives (London), DL 10/71. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Although in practice, Magna Carta failed to curb royal tyranny or misgovernment, it established a fundamental principle that kings ruled well only in so far as they ruled according to law. As an instrument restraining the untrammelled sovereignty of either monarchy or republic, the charter has since played a distinguished role not only in American independence but in the English Civil War of the 1640s, the French Revolution of 1789, and more recently in attempts to ensure that ruler and people, colonists and colonized are all established under the rule of law. Anniversaries are occasions for new discovery, not just for complacent celebration.

We now know a great deal more than we did, even a few years ago, about Magna Carta and the circumstances of its birth. We can appreciate the role played in its subsequent history by accident and myth making, by churchmen and lawyers, saints and sinners. Even in this anniversary year, new evidence has come to light, not least about the role that Magna Carta played, as recently as 1941, in fostering understanding between Britain and the USA. Churchill, Mandela and Gandhi are just a few of the statesmen who have appealed to the spirit of Runnymede. Their manipulation of Magna Carta has not always been in accordance with the thirteenth-century realities from which the document arose. Nonetheless, even the myths that we tell about ourselves can alter behaviour or determine the course of future events. Eight hundred years on, Magna Carta retains its fascination. Even now it has secrets to disclose.

Featured image credit: “Scroll”. Public domain via Pixabay.

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  1. […] roots of this ideal date back to Magna Carta of 1215. Its modern incarnation is most closely associated with the English constitutional scholar […]

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