800th anniversary of Magna Carta

If you have ever studied British history, you may remember that the Magna Carta – or the Charter of Liberties as it was originally known – was agreed by King John at Runnymede on the River Thames on 15 June 1215.  To celebrate the anniversary, the British Library will on 3 February be showing the two originals of the document that it holds along with those usually kept at the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury.  That accounts for all four copies of the original document known to remain in existence and is thought to be the first time they have been brought together.  Unfortunately the display will be for one day only and is only available to the 1,215 people who have won tickets in a public ballot.  There will, however, be various other Magna Carta-themed events taking place in other towns throughout the country, including a royal visit to Runnymede on 15 June.


The story of the Magna Carta is quite complicated, however, and its remaining significance has at times been questioned.  Is it really the basis of Western man’s modern, constitutional rights of liberty or was it just a failed peace treaty?

Peace Treaty

The 1215 version of the document was originally a peace treaty drafted at the conclusion of a rebellion by various Barons against King John’s increasing taxes.  The Barons had captured the City of London in May 2015, thereby forcing the King to negotiate with them.  Their demands covered various subjects, hence the 4,000-word length of the document, but many of the grievances related to earlier events in the reigns of John’s brother, Richard the Lionheart, and their father, Henry II.  The power and wealth of the Crown had increased significantly over this period in relation to the aristocracy.  It had needed to, however, in order to fund the defence of a realm that included about a third of modern France and, in Richard’s case, to finance the Third Crusade. That last venture had in itself cost a huge amount and had led to Richard being captured and held to ransom.  The costs have been estimated at perhaps 10 times the national GDP.  There were also wars in France as well as the usual costs of government which meant that the Crown had an increasing need of funds.  These were generally raised through taxes and the Kings’ feudal rights to demand payments on the Barons’ inherited estates and titles.

Richard died in 1199 and John took over the crown.  Subsequent portrayals on stage and screen paint him as either a bumbling buffoon or a duplicitous villain.  John had effectively been acting in Richard’s place while Richard had been crusading and had developed a very good grasp of the mechanics of government during that period so the description as a shambling incompetent does not seem to fit.  Unfortunately his military leadership was not good and, unlike some Hollywood rewrites of history, his portrayal as a malevolent despot seems to be borne out by contemporaneous commentators as he was distinctly unpopular.

John tried to raise an army to recover the lands he had lost in France through unsuccessful wars there and then to counter the threat of invasion.  This had led to increasing taxes being levied on English Barons and there were also rumours of the King seducing several of their wives and daughters.  The King’s excommunication had given the Barons additional encouragement to revolt.

Following defeat at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, which brought an end to the long-running Anglo-French war, the Barons took matters into their own hands and, following their capture of the City of London in 1215, the King agreed to curb his powers in negotiating the Charter of Liberties.  Four days after the royal seal had been applied, the Barons renewed their oaths of allegiance.

Once the treaty had been agreed, however, John wasted little time in sending messengers to the Pope, who was now back on side, to ask him to annul the Charter.  On 24 August, Innocent III, who had only recently rescinded John’s excommunication, duly issued a Papal Bull describing Magna Carta as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people”.  Obviously the Barons were furious and civil war again ensued with the Barons refusing to let go of the City of London and inviting Prince Louis, son of the French King, to take the Crown.  Prince Louis invaded the following year and the war was still going when John died of dysentery in October 1216.

So it seems that Magna Carta was indeed a failed peace treaty and almost finished before it began but, in fact, Henry III, who succeeded John, re-issued Magna Carta in 1216 when he took the throne, at the age of 9, in order to regain the Barons’ support.  It worked: Prince Louis was thrown out again and Henry further re-issued the Charter in 1217.  In 1225, Henry then re-issued a much revised version and the 1225 version was then enrolled on the statute book by King Edward in 1297.

Human rights

So why has this short-lived failure of a peace treaty become so well known?  It was used in the 17th Century by Sir Edward Coke and others to condemn Charles I and justify the actions of his opponents.  It was used by the Founding Fathers of America in drafting parts of the Declaration of Independence and was reflected in the Bill of Rights in 1791.  It is further echoed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.  Does it really speak to the foundations of modern democracy, the defence of personal liberty and the protection of freedoms?

Well, probably the best known clauses of Magna Carta actually do: “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” and “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice” relate to the rights to trial by jury and due process.  These were relatively unimportant clauses in the Charter, however, being numbers 39 and 40 of 63.  Bear in mind also that while reference to a “free man” would have included the Barons, it did not include most of their underlings who, according to the medieval feudal system, were considered to be possessions of their superiors.  At the time, those advocating the charter would probably have been more likely to refer to: the protection it offered from the King’s prerogatives; the protection it conferred on the Catholic Church and the aristocracy; the tax breaks for the wealthy; freeing the City of London from regulatory oversight; and placing the burden of infrastructure maintenance on local communities, thereby allowing the Barons to control it.

There are now only 3 clauses of the original Magna Carta that have not been repealed or superseded in British statutes.  These include the English Church’s right to freedom, the right of the City of London to its ancient liberties and free customs and the right to trial by jury.

The reason why the Magna Carta is held up as this shining beacon of constitutional freedoms, however, is because of what it represented and what it has since come to represent.  It marked the first time that a monarch had agreed to limit his actions or behaviour in relation to his subjects.  Whilst it did not necessarily have a huge immediate practical effect on curtailing royal powers, it did have a significant symbolic effect and was not without its consequences.  The 1225 version of the Charter, for example, was issued by Henry III explicitly in exchange for a new tax, demonstrating an acknowledgement that consent might be required for the King to raise money.  Later in Henry’s reign, although Henry had by then become little more than a figurehead following another rebellion, Simon de Montfort used Magna Carta to convene a Parliament in 1265 made up of elected representatives from every county and major town in the country to approve the granting of taxation.  It was the first such parliament which included representation from the “commons” rather than just the aristocracy and is reckoned to be the prototype for the House of Commons.

In the 21st century, reference to Magna Carta has become an indication of willingness to govern fairly, to embrace restraint.  It has become a worldwide symbol of civil liberties the birth of British democracy and protection from tyranny and for those reasons, irrespective of the detail, its anniversary should be celebrated.

Russell Osman