Monday, 16 June 2014

A Sceptical and Very English Gloss

Even if Allan Massie is from Selkirk:

"I’ll tell of the Magna Charter / As were signed at the barons’ command / At Runningmead Island in t’ middle of t’ Thames / By King John as were known as 'Lack Land’ ”

So begins a comic monologue written by Marriott Edgar (a half-brother of Edgar Wallace) and often sung or recited by Stanley Holloway. It offers a wry account of the signing of that most famous of documents, Magna Carta, on June 15 1215.

David Cameron, drawing on the popular history for children, Our Island Story, calls it “the foundation of our laws and liberties”, enshrining British values which every child should learn.

He wants to use the 800th anniversary to reaffirm those values – in what is seen as a response to the Trojan Horse affair – and is holding a “one year to go” reception at Downing Street today.

He may not go as far as an editorial in this newspaper proposed and make the date a national holiday next year.

The importance the Prime Minister and so many others attach to Magna Carta might have surprised Shakespeare, who ignores it in his play King John, the theme of which is resisting a French invasion.

Whatever its later significance – its significance now, indeed – Magna Carta was not a revolutionary document like the American Declaration of Independence, or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

On the contrary, it was a deeply conservative one.

The document was presented to the king and his signature, by seal, extracted.

He had violated so many customs of the realm and infringed long-established liberties, which we might rather call privileges, that his rule in its present form had become intolerable to the barons and landholders, to the Church, and to the merchants of boroughs protected by their own charters.

The Magna Carta rehearsed these customs and liberties. It was a reproof to the king, to compel him to mend his ways.

Far from being an abstract statement of rights, it was a practical document: calling the king to order, reminding him of the limits on his power, and insisting that he was not above the law, but subject to it.

This was not unusual. Kings had been brought to a similar point before.

Medieval monarchy was limited monarchy, in theory and of necessity. Kings had to govern in collaboration with “the Community of the Realm” (essentially the propertied classes) and with their consent.

Ultimately, having neither a standing army nor a police force, they had little choice.

Moreover, the society of the Middle Ages was intensely legalistic – and the purpose of Magna Carta was to remind the king of what the laws were and of his duty to observe them if he himself was to receive loyalty and obedience.

If Shakespeare makes no mention of the document it is because in the years of the Tudor despotism the balance between government and governed shifted in favour of the former.

The Tudors made use of what were called the Prerogative Courts to bypass the common law of England. Torture, practised on “subversive” Roman Catholics by the Elizabethan government, was illegal under the common law (and indeed under Magna Carta), but inflicted by the judgment of the Prerogative Courts (the Star Chamber and High Commission).

It was the parliamentary and judicial opposition to the less effective (and less oppressive) despotism of the early Stuarts which revived interest in Magna Carta, now presented as the safeguard or guarantee of English liberty.

Though it had been drawn up by Anglo-Norman bishops and presented to the king by Anglo-Norman barons, the theory was developed that it represented a statement of the rights and liberties enjoyed in Anglo-Saxon England by the “free-born” Englishmen before they were subjugated to the “Norman Yoke”.

This, doubtless, offered an unhistorical and rather-too-rosy view of Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, but it had this to be said for it: that the Norman and Plantagenet kings had regularly promised to abide by the “laws of King Edward” – the saintly “Confessor” and second-last Saxon king.

Be that as it may, it is significant that one of the first acts of the English Revolution of 1640-41 was the abolition of the Prerogative Courts, which were declared to have been always illegal; and that they were not brought back after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

The common understanding of Magna Carta is itself rather unhistorical, since it transforms statements about the freedoms and privileges of the propertied classes (with no regard for the serfs) into guarantees of common liberty under the Law of the Land.

Still, David Cameron’s claim that Magna Carta may be regarded as the “foundation of our laws and liberties” is fair enough, and we should add to it the 17-century act of habeas corpus.

It is even historically accurate, because this is how Magna Carta has been perceived over the past 400 years. It is well worth teaching.

Nevertheless, the last verse of Marriott Edgar’s monologue offers a sceptical and very English gloss on the claims made for it:

“And it’s through that there Magna Carta / As were signed by the barons of old, / That in England today we may do what we like, / So long as we do what we’re told.”


  1. Torture was not just illegal under Magna Carta-it was later made permanently illegal in what became the finest part of our written Constitution; the 1689 Bill of Rights, and its glorious ban on "cruel and unusual punishment".

    Magna Carta's famous inscription "Freedom under the law" is probably the best description of what separates Britain from the rest of the world that anyone has ever given.

    Provided we remember the "law" bit, and remember where it came from.

  2. There is no helping some people.

    Venerating supposedly unquestionable historic documents and insisting that they mean whatever one happens to think is very un-British, and it is extremely un-English.

    But it is very, very, very ... well, let's call it "Anglosphere".