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.
Some people say Magna Carta is the most important single document in the history of the human race, while others consider it to be little more than a piece of political pragmatism.
So how important is Magna Carta really?
As is so often the case, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle ground.
In the immediate context of 1215, Magna Carta was highly unsuccessful because it was a peace treaty that resulted in war within a few weeks. In its original format, it was unworkable.
Its original format had a clause at the end that allowed England’s barons, who were against King John, to go to war with him if he didn’t stick to the terms of the charter. So, realistically, it was never going to work in the short term.
Crucially, Magna Carta was reissued in 1216, 1217 and 1225 as a somewhat more royalist document.
In the reissues, the important clause that meant the barons could rise up in arms against the king to compel him to adhere to the document was dropped, as were several other clauses which damaged the prerogative of the Crown.
The essential restraints on the money-getting power of the king were preserved, however.
Consequently, Magna Carta had a good, long afterlife in the 13th century when people did appeal to it and did want it reconfirmed.
In 1237 and 1258, as well as in Edward I’s reign, people asked for Magna Carta to be confirmed two or three times. So clearly it was very important in the 13th century.
The iconic power of Magna Carta
Magna Carta was then revived in the 17th century, in the wars between Parliament and the Crown. Thereafter it became iconic, particularly the resonant clauses buried in the middle – 39 and 40.
Those clauses were about justice not being denied, justice not being delayed or sold, and no free man being deprived of his lands or persecuted in any way. They were taken out of their original context somewhat and venerated.
It went on to be the foundation of lots of other constitutional documents around the world, including the Declaration of Independence and other constitutions in Australia.
There are only, depending on which version you’re using, three or four clauses of Magna Carta still on the statute book, and they’re there for historic reasons – that the City of London shall have its liberties and that the Church will be free, for instance.
As an emblem, however, Magna Carta continues to be very important, because it says a fundamental thing: that the government will be under the law and that the executive will be under the law.
There had been charters before Magna Carta but none had contained such blanket declarations about the king being under the law and having to abide by the law. In that sense, Magna Carta was innovative and fundamentally important.