Today we celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta. It carries great meaning for modern lawmakers: freedom from tyranny, fair trial, the rights of man. The ideals of liberty and justice symbolised by Magna Carta underpin the US Constitution and have informed human rights campaigners around the world. The historian Bishop Stubbs declared all English constitutional history to be “a commentary on Magna Carta”. Lord Denning called it “the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”. This conception of Magna Carta is an important reality for us – it is very real indeed.
And yet it is not the original reality of Magna Carta, a document that was not called by that name, was not signed by King John (he used his seal), and which was repudiated by both monarch and barons after just a few weeks. A last-ditch peace treaty between two upper class factions, the “Charter of Runnymede” is unconcerned with the oppression of the common man, freedom of speech or democratic representation. Instead, it prioritises the interests of the Church and the (mostly French) aristocracy, focusing in the main on the specific grievances of rich landowners. It is harsh on Jews (“If anyone has taken a loan from Jews, great or small, and dies before the debt is paid, the debt is not to incur interest for as long as the heir is under age”) and women (“No man is to be arrested or imprisoned on account of a woman’s appeal for the death of anyone other than her own husband”). About a third of the 1215 Magna Carta was rewritten or cut within ten years, and almost every clause has since been repealed.
It does seem odd that a failed agreement between one oppressor and a bunch of disgruntled lesser oppressors has come to represent the very essence of liberty and the rights of man. And yet it has. Its reality has been shaped — partly by John’s son, Henry III, and partly by 17th century Parliamentary spin doctors — into something powerful and very valuable. A kind of historical alchemy, one might say. To go back to the 1215 text and protest that it has quite a different meaning is to miss the point. Magna Carta IS freedom and justice. It doesn’t really matter what the words say.