The Magna Carta Myth

15 Jun

As children, we were taught that, by signing Magna Carta, the ‘bad’ King John was forced by his Barons to give essential liberties to his people.  So entrenched in the British psyche is this popular version that few batted an eyelid when David Cameron alluded to it (inter alia other gaffes (see here) in his jingoistic closing speech to the party faithful at their 2013 Conference. And that is what people all over the UK are going to be told they are celebrating today –  an iconic British achievement – the first ever granting of fundamental human rights.

But that is nothing more than an English myth foisted upon the populace by lawyers in the late 16th century (almost 400 years after the event), who craved the return of a non-existent “Saxon golden-age”, in which they believed had existed a constitution that had protected individual English freedoms that had remained in force until it had been revoked by the Norman invaders.  This myth that Magna Carta was at the heart of the foundation of English Law was further perpetuated by the 17th century jurist, Sir Edward Coke, who used it as a political tool in his attempts to curb the “Divine Right of Kings” claimed by the House of Stuart, who were not only Norman, but worse still, Scots!

Yet the facts do not support the Heatherdown and Eton version with which the juvenile Cameron was infused.  The bald truth about the original Magna Carta of 1215 is that it was essentially a failure.  To see why we have to debunk another myth and look at what really happened between June and September 1215.

John Lackland was not as bad a king as the English historians (and Disney) wish to paint him.  Much of the opprobrium heaped upon him was due to his regency of England during the time his popular brother, King Richard Coeur de Lion, was away on Crusade.  These crusades had to be paid for (and did not come cheap), so it fell to John to raise the necessary taxes, and later to fund his brother’s ransom.  But that does not mean that he was a good king.  Though he was an able administrator, he was justly criticised for  abusing his feudal rights and imposing heavy taxation to pursue a needless war with France, which he lost.  This led a number of Barons (aristocracy), with the support of the Church, to rebel in protest.  The rebels had achieved some miltiary success, including the capture of London, and were John to avoid an all out civil war, he would have to negotiate with his Barons.

To this end, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langdon, drew up a Charter of 63 clauses outlining the Barons’ demands, which was presented to John on the island of Runnymede (which was close to both the rebel base at Staines and to Windsor).  Though both parties signed and sealed the Charter, neither side kept to the agreed terms.  The Barons refused to surrender London, while John immediately appealed to Pope Innocent III as his “spiritual overlord”.  The Pope responded by first suspending Langdon from office and excommunicating the rebels; he then declared the Charter “null and void forever“.  His letter (dated 24th August), which  arrived in London in September, was the spark that ignited the 1st Barons’ War.

John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his 9 year old son, Henry III. Henry’s regents reissued the charter – minus most of the progressive clauses – in 1217 as a bribe to the Barons to accept the Treaty of Lambeth.  It was reissued it in 1225 in exchange for taxation but, given that both versions were issued during Henry’s minority, its validity was questioned.  It wasn’t until 1297, when Henry’s son, Edward I reissued it that it had any real bearing on English law.  Yet, by 1350 – ie within just over 50 years – half of the clauses had fallen out of use.  By the end of the 19th century most of it had been repealed or superceded by new laws.  By 1969 only 3 clauses remained in force in English Law (Note – they have never had any effect in Scottish or Irish Law):

Clause 1 (1, 1297) – Guaranteed the freedom of the English Church.  (However, this was given an entirely new intrepetation during the 16th century by Henry VIII.)

Clause 13 (9, 1297) – Confirmed the liberties and customs of London and other boroughs.

and

Clauses 39 & 40 (29, 1279) – “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment 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.” (This was blatantly broken in the case of the trial of Charles I, who as a “free man” was denied trial by his peers).

Despite the claims that Magna Carta introduced “due process” into the law (a system that was dropped by English law but retained as a fundamental aspect of American law), it only applied to a small minority of the populace and mainly benefitted the nobility and clergy.  Despite the fact that trial by jury was introduced by Henry II for civil cases during the preceeding century, the importance of Magna Carta is how later law-makers, ignorant (accidentally or wilfully) of its original meaning, anachronistically reinterpreted it to suit their own period and agenda.  Furthermore, while clause 29 it still is on the statute book, it has in large part been superceded by Article 5 of the Human Rights Act, 1998 (which ironically Cameron, in a fit of English nationalism, wants to repeal!).

Magna Carta, even had it successfully remained in statute, would have had absolutely no effect outside of England and Wales.  Foreign influence was not even achieved by the Magna Carta of 1297 until the 18th century when the fledgling United States used the century earlier misinterpretation of it as a foundation for their Constitution.   It was this same mythologised version that inspired the UN Declaration of Human Rights, rather than the actual document drawn up by Langdon.

So is it really a great British achievement, as claimed by Cameron, that is being celebrated?

Despite its being garbed in the Union Flag and dressed up as British, Magna Carta was written long before the creation of the United Kingdom (long even before the Union of Crowns) and has never applied to Scotland or Ireland (despite their being in political union with England and Wales).  Thus, the answer has to be a “NO!” as resounding as that to the openng lines of the English Hymn, Jeruslem:

And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green:
and was the Holy Lamb of God,
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

What is being celebrated, in true English style, is a monumental flop, which under some jingoistic delusion has been transformed into a kind of fabled success that sets England above the rest of the world.

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One Response to “The Magna Carta Myth”

  1. wrbcg June 23, 2015 at 9:52 am #

    Mike Small, writing for Bella Caledonia, analyses the actual celebrations

    http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2015/06/16/get-carta/

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