We've just had the anniversary of the first issuing of Magna Carta, and next year will be a major milestone - 800 years from a fractious meeting in a meadow by the Thames in the summer of 1215. Recently David Cameron used it as an example of 'Britishness' that everyone should learn about, in the wake of the so-called 'Trojan Horse' affair in Birmingham schools (don't get me started), but in saying that Cameron apparently fails to appreciate that even the idea of 'Englishness' was still in its infancy in 1215, in a land where the nobility spoke French, and an inclusive version of 'Britishness' would presumably involve Wales and Scotland, neither part of a unified country with England until 1283 and 1707 respectively. Mind you, on the David Letterman show two years ago Cameron didn't even know what Magna Carta meant, so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised.
Indeed, as Cameron shows, Magna Carta is one of those historical things that everyone thinks they know about but about which there are actually many misconceptions. Some of the US members of the William Marshall group that I mentioned a few blog posts back also love to prove that they are descended from "the 25 barons that signed Magna Carta". In actuality no-one signed Magna Carta - that's not how medieval documents were authenticated; they were sealed with the seal of the issuer. Magna Carta was a charter - a grant of rights and priviliges by a landowner to his tenants - in this case by the King to his subjects, so it was sealed by King John. The original 1215 version (only) lists 25 people in the most contentious of its clauses, number 61, the so-called 'Security Clause', but these were not witnesses - they were the leaders of the rebel party, and the 25 are listed as 'enforcers' of the charter - at the point of a sword - making it clear John was being strong-armed into signing. If they disagreed with the King's implementation of the charter the Security Clause allowed them to overrule him. It effectively subordinated Royal authority to this self-appointed junta. In 1215 that was not just radical, it was heretical. Kings were appointed by God, anointed at their coronation by Bishops to signify God's favour. Defiance of a crowned king was defiance of the will of God - rebels (including the Magna Carta rebels) were routinely excommunicated. The Security Clause was the excuse that the Pope needed for annulling the charter, and when William Marshall, the regent, reissued the charter in 1216 after John's death, the Security Clause was conspicuous by its absence. (By the by, although Marshall stayed loyal to John to his death, one of the named rebels is his son, also called William, who had been effectively told by his dad to join the rebels so that - whichever side won - the family would have someone in the winning camp. Marshall may have been a paragon of chivalry, but he was no man's fool!)
So what was Magna Carta? It was at its heart a peace treaty, the outcome of negotiations designed to head off civil war, and it failed. Within weeks of its issuing, the King and Barons were fighting. But it was not just, as the other piece of conventional wisdom goes, solely "a baronial document that meant nothing to the serfs". Yes, the prime movers were wealthy nobles in what amounted to a tax revolt against the King. Yes, the first dozen clauses dealt with inheritance and noble tax obligations, which had been systematically manipulated by John to squeeze the wealthiest in his kingdom to finance his war to regain lost lands in France. But - the commercial hub of London being the main rebel stronghold - the merchants of London also had their say - the Mayor is one of the 25 'barons' listed in the Security Clause. Some of the more baffling clauses concern fish weirs on the Thames and Medway (impediments to river traffic), fixed hire rates for carts, standardisation of weights and measures - these are not noble concerns. And the most enduring clauses, the ones still on the statue book today are the most timeless; statements of principle: "To no-one will we sell, to no-one deny or delay right or justice." "No free man shall be deprived of his liberty save by the law of the land or the lawful judgement of his peers." These sprang from the ideals of the English Common Law - invented by John's father Henry II, and amazingly popular by 1215, increasingly coalescing as a common system of justice available to all, a reassertion of old Anglo-Saxon legal traditions in a Norman wrapping.
At Magna Carta's heart was an idea - the idea that even Kings can be brought to account. In the Middle Ages such a radical idea needed solid theological underpinning, and this came from Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. Langton was an old schoolmate of the Pope, to whom he owed his promotion, and like Pope Innocent he was a lawyer by training. At Paris, where both men had studied, Langton had written a dissertation on the limits of royal authortity, stuffed full of Biblical references, discussing when it was right and just to take up arms against a tyrannical ruler. Langton's lawyerly fingerprints are all over Magna Carta - he may not have been responsible for every detail, but he was almost certainly behind the very idea of a Royal charter of rights. It began in January 1215 as the 'Unknown Charter' - in effect an attempt to get John to confirm the rights already granted by Henry I in his Coronation oath in 1100. This was important as it meant it was not an innovation, it was something already granted by John's great grandfather - and medieval people were suspicious of innovation. But by June 1215 these 14 succinct points had expanded to become a grab-bag of 48 grievances which we call the Articles of the Barons, bearing all the hallmarks of being drafted by committee. This seems to have been the working draft for the Runnymede negotiations. Even then, though, it expanded during the days of argument, ending up 61 clauses long. The final one, the Security Clause, was a clear statement of Baronial mistrust of John, but it was also a step too far, and it was the excuse John needed to tear the charter up. By December Magna Carta was a dead letter and the country was at war.
And that might have been the end of Magna Carta, except that when John died in October 1216 the royal party was losing. Prince Louis of France, the Dauphin, had been crowned by the Barons in Westminster, and with the Franco-Baronial army he held most of the southeast, while the Scots and Welsh took advantage of the chaos to make a grab for lands in the borders. William Marshall, elected as Regent to the 9-year old Henry III, had to split his opponents. He did so with a bold gesture - he reissued Magna Carta under his own authority, now pruned back to 42 clauses, as it was shorn of the most contentious parts (especially the Security Clause). Now the barons had gained pretty much all that they were fighting for, he argued, and he made clear that he was also willing to discuss any points still at issue. So who would they prefer as King - the innocent child Henry, or a French pretender? The gesture worked. The baronial party melted away. Marshall's forces were now enough to twice defeat Prince Louis, on land at Lincoln, and by sea at Sandwich, and Louis returned to France. Marshall reissued Magna Carta again in 1217, now following some renegotiation with the rebels, and although Marshall died soon after, Henry III found it prudent to confirm a fourth variant of Magna Carta in 1225 when he came of age. Even then, though, the final, definitive version did not appear until Henry's son Edward I needed to raise taxes in 1297 and he offered a fifth and final version as a sweetener to his grumbling lords. Nevertheless, by then the idea that the laws of the land, agreed by both King and people, stood higher than the authority of either one alone, was firmly established in England. Three clauses of the 1297 version of Magna Carta (including the two I quoted above, on rights and liberty) remain statue law in the UK.
We owe Magna Carta to a strange combination of people and circumstances - an Anglo Saxon legal tradition that placed all under the law, a king who had bent the rules in his desperate search for cash, a top flight Papal lawyer concerned with the limits of royal authority, and a shrewd Regent looking for a way to rescue a dismal military situation. But out of it came something not seen before - something radical. That is Magna Carta's importance, and its legacy. And I am sure that that is the germ of the idea that Cameron, in his historically confused way, is trying to articulate. When New Labour, in one of its fits of authoritarianism, tried to abolish trial by jury for some crimes, my MA tutor from Kings College, Professor David Carpenter, probably the country's leading expert on Magna Carta, was actually called in to testify about the present Magna Carta clauses on the statute books and how they might be interpreted. The fact that even today, 800 years later, this remarkable medieval document still stands as a bulwark against arbitrary state authority, is a truly amazing thought. So yes, by all means let us celebrate it, not as some kind of convenient rallying cry about a concept of 'Britishness' that no-one can agree on, but as the Americans do, as the beginnings of an ideal of liberty and justice that we must still be prepared to fight for.