It’s a dry, tedious legal document from a distant age, almost entirely focused on archaic feudal laws and the snarling grievances of long-dead land barons. Yet somehow, Magna Carta has become an iconic statement on individual liberty and modern civilisation, quoted by the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. In the words of eminent judge Lord Denning, it is “the greatest constitutional document of all time – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.
Think “Magna Carta” and the image that springs to mind is a tyrannical king, the dastardly King John, being shamed into meeting with a group of righteous, democratically-minded subjects on a field in England in the year 1215, and reluctantly signing a set of rules that would lay the foundations for a better, freer nation.
But the truth is far less romantic. At the time, neither side thought much of the agreement, which was little more than a peace treaty between the monarch and a bunch of rebellious land barons who were sick of paying high taxes to finance the king’s foreign wars. It wasn’t even a very good peace treaty. Not long after that now-mythologised day in Runnymede, both sides ignored their agreement and fell into a civil war. So much for a document ushering in a brave new era of democracy and cooperation.
Indeed, what we think of as “Magna Carta” today has far less to do with the rather ramshackle Runnymede agreement of June 1215, and far more to do with how the charter evolved over time, and how it would be reinterpreted and romanticised several centuries later.
That’s not to say the original Magna Carta didn’t have nuggets of importance. It contained clauses that protected religious rights, set limits on taxation and confirmed due process and the right to “the lawful judgment of his peers” for anyone accused of crimes. This was all designed to appease the rebel barons, as was a particularly incendiary clause giving a group of barons the right to seize royal property if the king didn’t abide by the agreements of the charter.
"Even so, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that Magna Carta went from mere legal document to legendary emblem of freedom from tyranny."
This clause was an intolerable threat to the throne, practically guaranteeing a violent fall-out between the king and the barons – which did indeed happen shortly after Magna Carta was agreed, with the onset of the First Barons’ War. It saw the barons, along with the future Louis VIII, attempt to topple King John and usher in a new dynasty. John himself died the next year, with his son Henry III becoming the child-king and the civil war eventually ending. It was actually under Henry, in 1225, that the most important version of Magna Carta was created – it’s THIS document, not King John’s more famous 1215 charter, which would have its clauses become part of the United Kingdom’s Statute Book.
Even so, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that Magna Carta went from mere legal document to legendary emblem of freedom from tyranny. A key figure in its transformation was Sir Edward Coke, a renowned barrister and legal scholar, who used Magna Carta to challenge the authority of Charles I. From this moment on, Magna Carta went from being a document largely about tax breaks for landowners and the rights of the church to a shining beacon of liberty, human rights and a reminder that the ruling classes must be beholden to the people.
Magna Carta also played a decisive role in the formation of the United States. The Founding Fathers of that upstart nation were influenced by the charter right from the start – the words “Magna Carta” were even written on the title page of an early document by the colonists protesting the actions of the British government. Magna Carta would go onto influence the content and style of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.
To this day, Magna Carta is referenced and held up by those seeking to question abuses of power. It’s been the stuff of comedy (“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” asked Tony Hancock) and the stuff of newspaper headlines, especially since 9/11 and the on-going controversies over the detainment of suspected terrorists. In short, Magna Carta has become an immortal meme and touchstone, in a way that would likely have made jaws dropped among the rival aristocrats who met this month in Runnymede in 1215.