800th anniversary of Magna Carta

Monday 15 June 2015

15 June 2015 marks the official 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

Here, Professor John Hudson, a leading expert on the subject gives a considered view of the history and significance of the document.

The power of Magna Carta rests on its status as a myth. Yet amongst useful political myths, Magna Carta has a particular strength: its mythic status has a firm basis in historical truth. The document issued in June 1215 made a clear promise of the rule of law. The king granted that: ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay justice or right.’ Arbitrary action by the ruler was prohibited: ‘No free person is to be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.’ And these promises remain on the English Statute Book to this day. Such durability both explains and justifies the present celebration of the Octocentenary of Magna Carta.

Magna Carta was originally the product of specific political circumstances. Above all it was a reaction to King John and his rule, which managed to be both extremely oppressive and immensely unsuccessful. But why did the rebels seek a charter of liberties, rather than simply attempt to topple the king? The latter had apparently been their intention in 1212, when there was a plot to murder John and replace him. No previous rebellion had sought an elaborate and written programme of reform. Yet constitutional ideas had been growing and were debated. In London people were saying that ‘Right and justice ought to rule in the kingdom rather than the perversities of arbitrariness; law is always made by right, but arbitrariness and violence and force are not right.’

The problem with a king as slippery as John was to get him to stick to his promises, and for this reason it was a very good idea to have them written down. But the problem was structural as well as personal. It is the perpetual difficulty of creating authority above the state. The United Nations today can have a charter, but without an army it can often be ignored. In 1215 the rebels set up a body of 25 leading men who were to force the king to obey Magna Carta. He was no longer the supreme lord in his realm. And the 25 men did have an army, for they promised to supply over a 1000 knights to secure the king’s compliance.

Still John escaped the terms of the Charter. He had the document annulled by the pope. Civil war escalated. Yet the Charter was to survive. When John died in 1216, his young son Henry III was in desperate need of support. Magna Carta was therefore reissued in his name, with some of the most demeaning clauses removed. Such reissues would be frequent in the thirteenth century, as kings sought support or money; the clauses that today survive on the Statute Book are in fact based on the reissue of 1225, not on the original grant of 1215.

In the sixteenth century there was a rare period of quiet in the use of Magna Carta. It is not mentioned in Shakespeare’s play King John. But at this very time interest particularly in the clauses I cited earlier was growing. It reached a peak in the quarrels between king and parliament that led up to the English Civil War in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Magna Carta has continued to flourish in the modern period, in particular in the United States of America. In New York in 1940 the composer Kurt Weill, a refugee from Nazi Germany, wrote his ‘Ballad of Magna Carta’, a piece mercifully rarely performed. And the Supreme Court continues to cite Magna Carta, often as the basis for ‘Habeas corpus’, the prevention of detention without trial. In April 2004 Justice Stephen Breyer referred to the right of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to ‘“due process of law” in the words of Magna Carta.

In 2015 Magna Carta has been celebrated well beyond England and the United States. There have been events in the West Indies and Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the Republic of Macedonia and Slovenia, Chile and Peru. Such celebration confirms the view of the recently deceased English Law Lord, Tom Bingham, that Magna Carta ‘can plausibly claim to be the most influential secular document in the history of the world.’

John Hudson has been co-editor of the third edition of J.C. Holt’s classic work Magna Carta (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He attended the reception for the Magna Carta Trust’s Global Law Conference at Buckingham Palace in February. He has given or will give talks on Magna Carta at various schools in Britain, on radio in the USA, and by Skype to the San Marcos University in Lima. He is participating in The Magna Carta Conference in London between 17 June 2015 and 19 June 2015, and giving the Allen Brown Memorial Lecture in Cambridge in July, on the drafting of the Charter. If you want to have a choice as to the day on which you may want to celebrate the Octocentenary of the Charter, see the History Extra website.

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