Sunday, August 16, 2015

Did Magna Carta die in vain?

There are few specific facts that I positively remember learning at school. I thought there were three, but right now I can recall only two, the first of which is the existence of the Indo-European family of languages. I was so enthralled by what I found on this topic in the school library's Encyclopedia Britannica that I read the whole article standing up with the volume resting on a shelf. The other fact came from our history teacher Mr Bruin, and I can visualise the classroom where he told us this. The window was on the left.  He said Magna Carta was unknown till discovered by Parliamentary lawyers in the 1620’s, a fact seemingly corroborated when we studied Shakespeare’s play of King John, in which Magna Carta doesn't even rate a mention.

From the British Library Magna Carta exhibition. An early Chartist poster from 1839. The Chartists chose their name to evoke an echo of Magna Carta
Actually I discovered from the British Library Magna Carta exhibition last week that the case is less clear-cut than I thought, but before I forget may I mention that the exhibition finishes on 1st September and if you’ve not been and have the opportunity to do so, I suggest you look lively and book here

I also suggest you put an alarm on your phone to remind you of your transport home.  I thought I had been in the exhibition a mere couple of hours or so, till my watch told me I had been there four hours, and I had to dash for my train back to Derby - from St Pancras Station thankfully, which is next door.

As to Shakespeare not mentioning Magna Carta a variety of
sometimes incompatible reasons are advanced for this. The simplest, that he just hadn’t heard of it, is probably not the case. Though it had not yet become an icon of popular culture, Magna Carta was part of the law, and was first printed in 1508. So what Mr Bruin told us, that Magna Carta was unknown before the 17th century, wasn’t quite right, and I'll return to this soon.  But although Magna Carta was enrolled in the statute book, it was the 1225 version (hold that thought, it's crucial) and not the 1215 version, so maybe Shakespeare just didn't associate Magna Carta with King John.  Or there again, maybe Shakespeare was well aware of the King John connection, but even more aware that his play might be banned if it depicted a successful rebellion against a monarch, as this was the sort of thing Queen Elizabeth and her secret police were awfully touchy about.  Maybe the truth is that to Shakespeare and his audience Magna Carta had not yet become a big thing in English history.  

Enthusiasm for a document they had not read

No to ‘Magna Carta Day’.  An internal civil service memo from 1947
My favourite exhibit? A 1947 internal civil service memo, denouncing a proposed ‘Magna Carta Day’.  An idea had been floated to declare 15th June a public holiday in the British Empire and the United States. These were the early days of the Cold War, and ‘Magna Carta Day’ was intended to emphasise Anglo-American co-operation and to champion the document as a symbol of Western liberty. Some British civil servants opposed the scheme though, fearing that the celebration of civil liberties might provoke opposition to British imperial rule. A memo from one K. W. Blaxter, Assistant Secretary in the Colonial Office, was on display.  He dismissed the plan thus:

In some Colonies where ill-disposed politicians are ever on the lookout for opportunities to misrepresent our good intentions, its celebration might well cause embarrassment and in general there is a danger that the Colonial peoples might be led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document which they had not read but which they presumed to contain guarantees of every so-called ‘right’ they might be interested at that moment in claiming.

Revolutionary yes or no?
Was Magna Carta a revolutionary document? Most historians say no, it was in line with coronation oaths made by previous English kings and with contemporary charters in Europe. Like the Statute of Pamiers, 1212, on display, a document the English barons will have known about.  So Magna Carta was part of conventional medieval political theory, the story goes.  This argument is set out in a lecture which is well worth reading by Lord Sumption, a leading British judge. He dispells the myth of Magna Carta as the original foundation of democracy. It was a treaty bound by its own context and the tenets of feudal law.

A republic like Venice

But the conservative historian David Starkey dissents. He claims Magna Carta was revolutionary. This is by virtue of clause 61, the security clause as historians call it.  Clause 61 gave the barons the right to levy distraint if the king infringed the charter, seizing the king’s assets like a debtor or malefactor

Starkey claims that the original 1215 Magna Carta (which only lasted 12 weeks) would have made England an aristocratic republic like Venice, with power in the hands of a senate of 25 barons.  It's in his book Magna Carta: The True Story Behind the Charter which I fear I won't get round to reading.  Magna Carta, he claims, is being presented as safe, domesticated, comforting, in this centenary year, but the earliest account of it by a Scottish observer is quite otherwise: ‘A new state of things began in England; such a strange affair as had never before been heard; for the body wished to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king.’

Margaret Thatcher is frequently ridiculed for claiming in her 1988 “Bruges Speech” that Magna Carta was the beginning of parliamentary democracy.  I wonder if this is quite fair.  Her actual words were “We in Britain are rightly proud of the way in which, since Magna Carta in the year 1215, we have pioneered and developed representative institutions to stand as bastions of freedom”.  Now I daresay that like the colonial peoples slighted by the unhappy Blaxter, she was led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document she had not read.  Yet so far as I can tell the 1215 charter did envisage a sort of parliament.  It established a council of the realm which had to approve taxation. That’s a bit like a parliament, is it not?  To be sure, only a House of Lords, but still a beginning. 

The charter was reissued in 1225 and in this form was later enrolled in the statute book. But the 1225 version had no committee of barons overseeing the king, and no common council of the realm to approve taxation. So no enforcement mechanism. It was completely emasculated. 

More questions

How autocratic were the Angiven kings? This is a question there seems to be divergent views on amongst historians.  It's important for this reason, that if they were normally forced by circumstances to act consensually, then Magna Carta was nothing out of the ordinary for its time. The more autocratic, the more significant Magna Carta becomes.

Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) invented our idea of Magna Carta
Another question.  In what sense was Magna Carta “rediscovered” in the early 17th century?  My history teacher Mr Bruin isn't the only one to use this term, it was used by an historian in the exhibition.  But my mental image of Sir Edward Coke (pronounced Cook by the way) shouting Eureka when he discovering Magna Carta mouldering in an archive, is too literal.  Magna Carta the document was already known. It was the Magna Carta the idea that Coke rediscovered. Or invented perhaps. Coke it seems is single handedly responsible for putting Magna Carta on the banners of the parliamentary army in the English civil war.

And is likewise responsible for the US Supreme Court regularly citing Magna Carta in its judgments.  I'm still not clear though quite what American judges are doing when they cite Magna Carta. So far as I can tell it has no explicit standing in US law, how could it?  Yet the framers of the constitution and before that the Declaration of Independence had Magna Carta – Coke’s Magna Carta – very much in mind.  There was a video of the US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Gerald Breyer, but sadly it's not included in the videos on the website.  Tony Hancock "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you, did she die in vain?", is also sadly missing. If you have time for just one video I recommend Joshua Rozenburg.

I've just remembered the third fact I learnt at school, that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet. This I got from what was still in those days called a Divinity lesson by the school chaplain, a forward thinking chap who taught us what I now know to be comparative religion.  I remember the classroom, and I can see the window, it was on the right hand side.

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