Today marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, when King John reluctantly accepted the terms and ended the threat of civil war with the barons. The document has become one of the most important in British history, rich in symbolism as the first time a king was made subservient to the law.
Among my more random work projects last year was some research into the Magna Carta ahead of the anniversary celebrations. What struck me as I read around the topic was how totemic it has become, how many diverse movements will cite it to support their cause. Bizarrely, both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement both lay claim to the Magna Carta. It would be hard to find more opposing political visions, but both draw inspiration from this document.
That makes them part of a long tradition, because namechecking the Magna Carta started early – the year after it was issued in fact. After all, the original document didn’t last very long. King John clearly had no intention of keeping its terms, and went on a violent campaign of recrimination. This should not really be a surprise. As Danny Danziger and John Gillingham point out in their book 1215, it was written by “a committee of John’s enemies” and was “a political monstrosity”. John only agreed to it to buy himself some time.
The Magna Carta only lasted ten weeks. John sent word to the pope, who was for complicated reasons the official sovereign of England at the time anyway. Innocent III replied to say that he would “on behalf of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and by the authority of Saints Peter and Paul and His apostles, utterly reject and condemn this settlement.” He described it as shameful, illegal and unjust, and declared it to be “null and void of all validity for ever.”
The barons recognised its symbolic power though. When John died of dysentery the following year, Henry III was crowned at the age of nine. His guardians re-issued Magna Carta as a coronation charter, a way to declare their intentions, to say what kind of monarch he would be. The new Magna Carta was more successful, probably because it removed some of the most controversial clauses.
Later in his life Henry III issued it again, and his 1225 version was widely distributed. It was from 1225 that it became known as the Magna Carta, or ‘great charter’, to distinguish it from the Forest Charter that was issued at the same time. Another version in 1297 formed the opening pages of the first statute book of collected English law.
That iconic role has been referenced through the centuries. When the French restored the monarchy in 1814, they used the Magna Carta as an example, and issued a charter that limited the powers of the king. The rights of American settlers were guaranteed through a series of charters, and the Bill of Rights echoes the Magna Carta. So does the UN’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. Magna Carta is considered a ‘cornerstone of American liberty’.
This is an interesting legacy, because it’s not what the original set out to do at all. “The charter was not intended to be the cornerstone of English democracy” says Claire Breay of the British Library, “still less the foundation of a code of human rights.” It was a practical document intended to resolve a political crisis, more of a peace treaty than anything else.
Neither did Magna Carta did not bring rights and liberties to the masses. It was drafted by and for the barons. “Nearly all the grievances which it addressed were those of the highest ranking feudal landowners in the kingdom” says Breay, “not those of the majority of the population.” The opening words of the charter quite clearly state that it applied ‘to all free men of our kingdom’ – and ‘free men’ is a distinct social category. It did not apply to serfs. Indeed, the peasantry served the barons, so it was not in the barons interests to fight for their rights.
Genuinely calling for the liberties of the poorest was a dangerous game, as William FitzOsbert discovered during King Richard’s reign. “William stirred and excited the common people to desire and love freedom and liberty,” according to Robert Fabyan, writing in 1513. “With all his power he defended the poor man’s cause against the rich.” He was arrested on the orders of the Archbishop of Canterbury and executed.
In fact, the English serfs never were formally emancipated and I suspect I’m still one today. It nearly happened with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Richard II responded to rebel demands and abolished serfdom, but he promptly revoked his decision once the revolt was over. Serfdom was eroded by other factors, bit by bit over the centuries. The biggest contributing factor was the Black Death. In the early 1300s the plague wiped out a third of Europe’s population, creating a shortage of farm labourers. Peasants were suddenly worth more, and so were able to negotiate better terms with their lords, and the age of serfdom came to a close through economic necessity rather than political liberation.
What Magna Carta has become bears little resemblance to its context. As historian David Saxe writes: “It is not the history of 1215 that brought fame to Magna Carta; it was what people in subsequent generations thought about that history, or rather how they imagined new histories for Magna Carta… The legacy of Magna Carta possessed a life of its own, a life and tradition however ill-formed that came to mean something for Americans centuries after being pressed upon King John at Runnymede.”
So it is that Magna Carta is today claimed by libertarians and proponents of small government, and has been used to oppose President Obama’s healthcare reforms. It has also been claimed by the Occupy movement, who have an eco-village / protest camp at Runnymede. It has been cited by corporations resisting government regulation, and by Noam Chomsky in resisting the growing power of corporations. Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has called for a ‘Magna Carta for the internet’. Rapper Jay-Z’s latest album, which claimed to re-write the rules of hip-hop, was called ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’.
Ultimately, it is not the original Magna Carta that has stood the test of time, but what it stood for. It has taken on a totemic role, a rallying call against the overreach of authority. That is a powerful legacy, however muddled it may be when you look too closely.