Celebrating the birth (and death) of Magna Carta


On the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, James Melton reflects on the strength and influence of the legal document, but also its weaknesses and negative aspects.

This article is based on a new volume co-edited by Robert Hazell and James Melton Magna Carta and Its Modern Legacy.

Today Magna Carta (1215) celebrates its 800th birthday. We celebrate this historic event for two reasons. First, the Great Charter is one of the oldest in force legal documents in the world, as four lines from the original charter are still on the statute books in the United Kingdom. Second, and more importantly, Magna Carta has become a symbol of limited government that is recognised all over the world. However, when celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta’s birth, one should not forget about the 800th anniversary of its death on 24 August 2015. Magna Carta (2015) died when it was annulled by Pope Innocent III, just two months and nine days after it was sealed. The Great Charter was subsequently amended and reissued in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297, but its early death serves as a reminder that, in 1215, Magna Carta was a failure. It was completely ignored by King John and, ultimately, led England into the very civil war which it was meant to prevent.

In our new volume, Magna Carta and Its Modern Legacy, Robert Hazell and I have put together a collection of essays that both commemorate Magna Carta’s 800 year history and provide a balanced assessment of the Great Charter’s legacy. The volume is divided into three sections: 1) Magna Carta’s influence in the UK, 2) its influence abroad and 3) 21st century reflection on Magna Carta. While the scholars who have contributed to our volume all recognize the symbolic importance of Magna Carta, they all also realise that many of the claims made about Magna Carta are grossly exaggerated. As a result, the account of Magna Carta told by their chapters is more realistic than the account told by many commentators. Instead of unbridled enthusiasm for the Great Charter, our contributors recognise that its influence has not been wholly positive.

For example, in Chapter 6, Derek O’Brien explains how Magna Carta was used by settlers in the Commonwealth Caribbean to justify the use of slavery. To this day, many commonwealth countries (e.g. New Zealand and many Caribbean nations) claim Magna Carta as part of their legal code. This was no different during the colonial era, when settlers claimed the liberties set forth in Magna Carta as part of their birthright as Englishmen. Dr O’Brien explains how, during the abolition debates in late 18th century England, this birthright was used by proponents of slavery to claim that slaves were similar to the `villeins’ in medieval England, whose liberties were not protected by Magna Carta. They also argued that slaves were the property of their masters, attempting to draw on the sacred place of property rights in both Magna Carta and English law more generally. Such arguments were successful in delaying emancipation in the Commonwealth Caribbean and in securing compensation for slave owners who lost their `property’ after emancipation was achieved in 1833.

Dr. O’Brien is not the only contributor to highlight Magna Carta’s shortcomings. Most chapters in our volume find that the effect of Magna Carta is not as positive as the 800th Anniversary Committee would lead us to believe. For instance, Chapter 4 demonstrates, using polling data, how little UK citizens actually know about Magna Carta. Chapter 7 demonstrates the trouble Pacific Island nations have had living up to Magna Carta’s promise of a timely trial. Chapter 10 argues that the Charter of the Forest, which was sealed in 1217, was more consequential in medieval England than Magna Carta.

The theme which emerges from these chapters is that the Great Charter’s story is complicated. On the one hand, Magna Carta provides hope that citizens can rise up against an oppressive executive. On the other hand, it has frequently been ignored by numerous English Monarchs and sometimes even used to justify egregious human rights abuses. So, at this monumental time in Magna Carta’s history, one should not only celebrate Magna Carta’s birth, but also its death. Its death is important because it serves as a reminder that parchment alone is insufficient to constrain executive authority. It was not sufficient in 1215, when King John ignored the promises he made upon sealing Magna Carta, and by itself, parchment remains unlikely to serve as such a constraint in 2015.

This article originally appeared on CUP’s fifteeneightyfour blog.

About the Author

James Melton is Senior Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics and leads the Comparative Constitutions project at the Constitution Unit.

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