David Cameron‘s recent performance on the David Letterman Late Show got me thinking about the Magna Carta and its historical relevance. Whether or not Dave deliberately fluffed his answer so as to appear more a man of the people and not just another Old Etonian/Oxford toff (as asserted by Boris Johnson), doesn’t really matter. The Great Charter of 1215 has a central place in the list of crucial events in British and world history. Typically it is held up as one of the first ever codifications of freedom and democracy. In the USA it is referred to as one of the pieces of inspiration for resisting the rule of George III and a foundation for the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Later politicians and leaders waxed lyrical over it and, suggest some contemporary authors, elevated it into something it was never intended to be.
So, if later generations have reinterpreted Magna Carta to suit their own perceptions of what democracy and individual freedom ought to mean, where have they gone wrong? Well to start with, the 63 clauses that made up the original document related specifically to the barons and not to the common people. England in 1215 was still organised along feudal lines. Landless serfs in particular owned nothing and owed everything to their feudal overlord. Magna Carta was certainly not about extending their rights and privileges. Society was starting to become more stratified, but that process was in its very early stages. Furthermore, out of the 63 clauses, only three have not been repealed or fallen into disuse.
The most quoted clause is: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled. Nor will we proceed with force against him.
Except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
The key point here is ‘free man’. While freemen were growing in numbers the majority of the non-noble population of England were landless serfs. Magna Carta offered them little or nothing. So why the fuss? Possibly because Magna Carta remained influential andan inspiration to others and did indeed lead to some serious societal and political change. For that alone it deserves its position. At the same time the adulation needs to be tempered with realism – at the time Magna Carta was issued it was intended to be a quick fix solution to an unprecedented set of circumstances.
It’s often forgotten that King John was furious at what the barons were making him sign up to and within the year had persuaded the Pope to annul it. The only thing that ensured its survival was John’s death soon afterwards and the fact that his son, Henry was a boy. The council of barons that ran England during Henry’s minority ensured that the Charter survived and became part of the first English legal statutes issued in 1297.
So what are we left with – an obsolete piece of early medieval legislation? I doubt it. One of the most important legacies of Magna Carta was the idea that kings were not above the law and had to govern within in it. Later English monarchs who forgot this (Richard II and Charles I for instance) did so at their peril.