This article is an edited transcript of Magna Carta with Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 24 January 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
There are two clauses in the 1215 draft of Magna Carta that can be seen as crucial to the evolution of parliament. Both clauses relate to the king being required to obtain parliamentary assent for taxation.
It’s likely that something to do with parliamentary representation would have emerged in the absence of Magna Carta. This is simply because war is very expensive and the way forward, given the need to raise taxes for such endeavours, was to ensure that consent was required for tax.
Curiously, these clauses were dropped from the reissues of Magna Carta. But, even so, when later kings broke these clauses, people were up in arms.
In 1297, Edward I was waging wars on several fronts – he was fighting wars against the Welsh, the Scots and against the French. In so doing he had to take vast sums of money out of the country with more and more taxation.
A chronicler reported on parliament voting on one of Edward’s taxes, noting, disparagingly, that, “It was just the people stood about in his chamber.”
There was a sense that this was out of order, that parliament had to be everybody. It had to be representatives from the shires, it has to be all of the magnate class, not just the king’s mates nodding it through.
Did Magna Carta lead to the development of a parliament in England?
It’s not unreasonable to think of Magna Carta as the crucial first step towards the development of a parliament. If we look at the 1215 draft, clauses 12 and 14 establish a new principle – that you have to summon everybody in order to get consent for a tax.
Before that point, there was only really talk of great councils.
The first official reference to parliament is in the 1230s. They clearly thought there was something new going on and it wasn’t just a change of nomenclature. The change was representation.
Everyone thinks representation started in 1265 with Simon de Montfort, but it was clearly already going on. There were the knightly reps from the 1250s and townsmen who were present, according to chronicle descriptions, in the 1240s and 1250s.
In which case, de Montfort wasn’t doing anything new in January 1265 and Magna Carta can be considered a much more important marker post in terms of the history of the development of parliament.
Did King John’s dysentery save his dynasty?
King John died of dysentery in 1216 and one could convincingly argue that, in doing so, he saved Britain for the Plantagenets and Magna Carta from being vetoed.
John himself had rejected Magna Carta, while Louis VIII, who had been offered the English throne by the rebel barons, showed no sign of wanting to uphold it.
Henry III, who was nine and entirely blameless, succeeded John and, within a year, Louis VIII’s invading French forces had been defeated.
Magna Carta was reissued within a few weeks of John’s death, in good faith, by Henry’s regents.
Had John lived and gone on fighting he would most likely have lost and it’s doubtful that Magna Carta would have been revived in anything like the form it took.
Louis talked about giving people their good laws and customs, but there was were never any specific references to Magna Carta in anything he said.
As a result of that twist of fate, Magna Carta has gone on to inspire reformers and radicals and people all around the world, largely due to this central idea that no-one is above the rule of law, even the king.
We might think it all belongs to the distant past but that central tenet is as vital as ever. It’s why people are fighting wars across the globe – to make sure that even leaders have to obey the law.