‘By Phillip and Elizabeth Taylor, Richmond Green Chambers, reviews editors of the barrister magazine
The Terror of Tyrants through the Ages, Magna Carta is Reassessed 800 years on by Elizabeth Robson Taylor and Phillip Taylor MBE of Richmond Green Chambers
Worried about threats to your liberties, or those of others? Invoke Magna Carta. Many people do, although not many have read it.
This is not surprising, for despite Magna Carta’s historical and legal significance and the amount of learned commentary about it, the translation — the full translation that is — has not been readily or widely available, at least not at every news agent in town.
However, with public consciousness raised in anticipation of the planned celebrations in this 800th anniversary year, you can now read all you want about Magna Carta – and you can peruse the translation in its magnificent entirety in a number of books on the subject published this year. These are too numerous to mention here, but there are two which stand out as being of particular interest to legal practitioners and indeed anyone who loves the law.
One is the aptly named ‘Magna Carta Uncovered’ and co-authored by former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Igor Judge, and Anthony Arlidge QC. The other is ‘Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015’ by Nicholas Vincent.
Predictably, it’s the book by Arlidge and Judge that is regarded by many a legal practitioner as the book of the moment. It is a plain-speaking, 21st century appraisal of a 13th century legal document which, even in the absence of specific statements on human rights as such, has set the standard for rights and liberties the world over, even though it has been challenged, threatened, belittled and ignored in every century since, including our own.
But read the translation – you cannot help noticing that despite the dismissive remarks of some commentators today, at least half the clauses in the Great Charter were, and still are, political dynamite, and as relevant and radical now as they were in 1215.
Clause 40 is the best known: ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny, or delay right or justice.’ That, in the view of any reasonable reader, does include everybody, not just a band of rebellious barons as a number of pundits have claimed recently.
There is considerable documentary evidence to indicate that the principles of freedom, good governance and the rule of law that were demanded — initially unsuccessfully — by those barons set important precedents which later generations have emulated and upheld, often in the teeth of opposition. For example, from 1331 to 1351, various statutes extended the right against arbitrary action by the Crown to ‘all men of whatever condition whatsoever.’ Lamentably, history reveals how often the principles enshrined in Magna Carta have been ignored.
But there’s no need to retreat into history to note various frightening examples of justice under threat. There have been plenty of such threats in our own century, including proposals to end the right to trial by jury, with the jury system condemned as cumbersome, impractical, and costly and so on.
There have been instances too, of inordinately lengthy periods of bail and, ostensibly in response to the exigencies of the war on terror, there have been prisoners who have been locked up for months and in certain cases, years, without charge. Too many examples have emerged of the many ways in which power corrupts, which is why certain utterances in Magna Carta can still be called ‘relevant’ today. Take for example, the clauses that limit the power of bailiffs. Good idea, that. There is an insistence that persons in positions of power and authority should at least be qualified for their jobs. ‘We will not make (appoint) justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs who do not know the law of the land and mean to observe it well,’ thunders Clause 45.
Arlidge and Judge continue the fierce and gripping tale of the conflict and drama — including civil war — (check out the chapter on Robin Hood and the Royal Forests), which led to Magna Carta. The timeline at the beginning of their book lists the significant events that occurred prior to Magna Carta, and indicates that the document had a long gestation period and a difficult birth.
Magna Carta’s story began approximately in 1154 when Henry II ascended the throne of England. The decades which followed featured widespread strife, civil unrest and foreign wars which eventually under John’s reign emptied the nation’s treasury by 1214. This was only one example of John’s profligacy and incompetence as a monarch.
The fact that John during his reign, had lost possession of all the territories in France over which he had once ruled, earned him the nickname of Johnny Lackland — or across the Channel — Jean sans Terre. Finally, after further conflicts and further rebellion by the infuriated barons, the Great Charter was granted under the seal of King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215.
But, as most of us realize, this was not the end of the story. A month later John, observed at the time as gnashing his teeth and ‘biting on sticks’ in fury rescinded the Charter. He wrote to the Pope demanding that it be annulled, which the Pope duly did, declaring it void after condemning it utterly with some terribly ferocious and quite undiplomatic remarks which should not be repeated here. After King John’s death however, and following years of regency, the Great Charter, then newly dubbed ‘Magna Carta’ was reissued ‘in perpetuity’ under the seal of John’s heir, the young Henry III. Well, thank goodness for that, you might say – except once again, the story does not end here, nor as one might suppose, will it ever.
But let’s now talk about Nicholas Vincent’s ‘Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015’ from Lincoln Cathedral. Here you have an authoritative and compelling examination of Magna Carta and its enduring impact on British and world history. Enhanced by stunning illustrations, its engrossing narrative presents Magna Carta as an inspiration for all who love liberty and justice under the rule of law.
Professor Vincent, who heads a team of five experts who provide the commentary, is a professor of history at the University of East Anglia and, among his other credentials, a consultant on Magna Carta to the National Archives in Washington DC and joint curator of the British Library’s Magna Carta Exhibition 2015.
To understand the sheer potency and durability of the Charter, one must consider its original purpose, which was to impose long needed reforms on the corrupt government of King John — and there’s quite a lot about him in this book.
Discussing ‘The Tyranny of King John’, Vincent is in no doubt that this benighted monarch was tyrannous indeed, lecherous too, with no redeeming qualities. ‘Hell itself is defiled by the presence of King John,’ said the famous 13th century monastic chronicler, Matthew Paris.
It appears that the professor and his team have unearthed a mine of original source material that reveals a lot more about King John and the barons than has been generally known. One example is ‘The Magna Carta Sureties’ in which the 25 barons appointed in 1215 to enforce Magna Carta, are identified by name. (Apparently, they were supported by almost 2,000 other knights.)
Also interesting, as well as incriminating, are the extensive descriptions of certain documents that preceded Magna Carta, notably the ‘Chancery Rolls’, which, among other documentation, provide much evidence about the monarch’s methods of imparting justice by means of his own special blend of influence and intimidation.
Under John’s misrule, justice ‘could still be bought’. Cases often went ahead only after ‘painful delays’, themselves the result of ‘endless procedural complications, or the sheer difficulty of access to royal judges, either at Westminster or in the localities’. If any of this sounds uncomfortably familiar, perhaps it ought to.
Like ‘Magna Carta Uncovered’, Vincent’s study also provides the translation of the Charter’s actual text, complete with handy glossary. Apart from being rather gorgeous and glossy, this book stresses the significance of Magna Carta as a genuinely radical document and repudiates those — including some lawyers — who have loftily dismissed it as ‘a child of its time’ concerned only with the rights of a few barons. These critics, says Vincent, ‘have ignored the Charter’s enduring statements against arbitrary power and the principles of freedom under the law.’
It shouldn’t be too surprising then, that Magna Carta — the most famous document in the history of England and perhaps the world — ‘has been cited in parliamentary, congressional and constitutional debates more frequently than any other text,’ says Vincent, ‘save only for the Christian Bible.’
And so, in this anniversary year of 2015, the peculiar power of Magna Carta continues to cast its spell. As thousands of people — in more or less a spirit of pilgrimage — flock to see the original copies on display at the British Library, the Charter has acquired almost the status of a sacred scroll. This is a tad ironic in that it is a purely secular document devoid of religious references. But in these perilous times, it is a sobering thought that so many citizens feel the need to worship at its shrine so to speak, perhaps now more than ever.
It is also worth mentioning that a special tribute was paid to Magna Carta in the mid-twentieth century, in the form of a memorial erected by the American Bar Association on the banks of the Thames at Runnymede near where John was forced by those pesky barons, to affix his seal to the Charter. (It is not unfair to say that there is nowhere on earth where Magna Carta is more venerated than in America.)
And with the turmoil of the 13th century long gone this tranquil spot known as Cooper’s Hill is presided over now by the National Trust which runs a tea shop nearby. But wear your wellies when you go. Frequently flooded by the Thames, the grassy water meadows leading up to the site are probably just as boggy as they were in the 13th century.
If some or all of this has whetted your appetite for tracking down other historically significant documentation inspired by Magna Carta, take a look at the six appendices in ‘Magna Carta Uncovered,’ which include The Petition of Right 1628, the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Bill of Rights 1789. (United States).
One might be tempted to add here that there was another and much earlier document upon which Magna Carta may have arguably, had an indirect, rather than a direct influence, namely the Declaration of Arbroath of 1324 — a plea to the Pope in epistolary form for Scottish freedom from English conquest and domination.
Sadly, like Magna Carta over a century earlier, the Declaration initially sunk almost without trace, condemned to oblivion by another Pope. However, with that in-built virtue of survivability similar to that of Magna Carta it eventually became the inspiration, along with Magna Carta itself, for much of the content of the American Declaration of Independence.
Freedom it seems is a fragile plant, vulnerable to continuing onslaughts by those who detest and fear it as a threat to their authority and power; and not without vigilance and struggle does it survive. But survive it does. The battle of the barons against their tyrannous king has been repeated in other ways and by other means — some peaceful, some not — down through the generations.
So it is reassuring to recall that under the seal of Henry III, Magna Carta was reissued ‘in perpetuity’– a solemn legal term as we know, but one that has turned out to be prophetic. Repressed and reviled by tyrants from one century to the next, Magna Carta has kept bouncing back, for it continues to champion that ever-present and all too human yearning for freedom and justice which, let’s hope, will continue on ‘in perpetuity’.