Magna Carta, which this year celebrates its 800th anniversary, is perhaps the best-known document in world history. Yet much of it is either misunderstood or clouded in myth. Here, Nicholas Vincent, a professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia, reveals some lesser-known facts about the iconic document…
Whenever and wherever it is exhibited, thousands queue to view what Lord Denning described as “the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”. King John, the monarch who put his seal to Magna Carta, is widely regarded as the worst king in English history precisely because it was his particular acts of tyranny that led his barons to demand the charter. But did you know…
1) Magna Carta never once refers to the concept of democracyIts principal beneficiary, named at the beginning of its opening clause, is not the freemen of England or the barons and knights, but ‘God’. The charter was granted first and foremost to God in order that the king could not, as he might have done with a charter granted to any of his subjects, simply repeal the charter by his own arbitrary will. Gifts once made to God could not lightly be rescinded.
2) In later centuries, it was argued that Magna Carta lay at the roots of such principles of English justice as Habeas Corpus and the jury system, but Habeas Corpus is a 15th-century invention, devised 200 years after Magna Carta…… and only incorporated into Act of Parliament in the 17th century. The jury goes unmentioned in Magna Carta, which speaks merely of trial ‘by peers, and by the law of the land’. In any case, as established in the 12th and 13th centuries, juries were not supposed to decide guilt or innocence, but instead to report (‘to present’) crimes in court, with judgment delivered by the king's justices.
3) Far from establishing equal justice for all, Magna Carta draws clear distinctions between classes, nationalities and peoplesThe charter distinguished freemen (a minority of the population) from the peasant majority. Knights are distinguished from barons, and barons from the even higher ranks of the earls.
Individual clauses of the charter distinguish between the laws of England and the laws of Wales. Two clauses call for the expulsion from England of all foreign knights and soldiers. Another imposes limits on the profits that that could be made from Jewish moneylending. Another clause, still in theory operative into the 19th century, placed a ban upon any woman accusing a man of murder, save in a case where the murder victim was the woman's husband.
4) As the king who granted Magna Carta, King John is sometimes described as author of the oldest legislation still in force in England. In reality, the charter sealed by John at Runnymede was a dead letter, repudiated by king and church within a matter of only 10 weeks of its issueThe version of Magna Carta received in English law was that issued a decade later, in 1225, by King John's son, Henry III. This represents a heavily abridged version of Magna Carta, shorn of more than a third of the text granted at Runnymede.
Out went various clauses that the king considered most obnoxious, including those establishing a committee of 25 barons to sit in judgment over the king. Out too went the clauses limiting Jewish enterprise and demanding the expulsion of foreigners. Most surprisingly, out went clause 14 of the 1215 charter, which in theory established the principal of ‘No taxation without representation’ by calling for a representative assembly (a forerunner to parliament) to assent to all significant new taxes.
A view through a magnifying glass of part of an original Magna Carta from the issue made in 1300 by King Edward l to the borough of Sandwich in Kent, which was earlier this year discovered in the archives at Kent County Council's Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone. (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)
5) Even the text of the 1225 Magna Carta as received into English law was modified towards the end of the 13th century – when recited from a faulty copy – and it was reissued by the ministers of Edward IIt is this reissue that, technically speaking, became the official law of the land. Only three clauses of it remain in force today. The remaining 34 have been repealed as redundant, as a result of acts of parliament from the 1820s onwards.
Of the three clauses that still survive, one grants freedom to the church (in theory, at least, placing the church outside the normal operations of English law). The second recognises the special liberties of the City of London and other towns (no doubt of comfort to those who believe that the City and its institutions should remain self-governing oligarchies).
The third, and easily the most famous, forbids arbitrary arrest and demands trial by peers and the laws of the land. However, no definition is supplied either for the concept of ‘peers’ (ie equals) or ‘the laws of the land’ (in 1225, in most cases still unwritten). From the 1780s onwards, the newly independent United States of America looked to the 1225 Magna Carta as a guarantee of their liberties and freedoms. Beginning with South Carolina in 1836, and ending with North Dakota as recently as 1943, some 17 of the individual states voted fully to incorporate Magna Carta 1225 within their statute books. As a result, far more of Magna Carta survives in American than in English law.
6) As early as the 1290s, large parts of Magna Carta were considered either unenforceable or archaicThe charter was last renewed and reissued, county by county, in 1300. Thereafter, kings of England made regular promises to abide by the charter, but without reissuing it clause by clause. Magna Carta itself was transformed from practical law into political totem. It is as totem and symbol that it enjoyed greatest significance, underpinning the attempts by 17th-century parliamentarians, 18th-century revolutionaries, and 19th-century constitutionalists to argue that the sovereign authority, and ultimately the state itself, must abide by the rule of law.
7) Visitors to England expect to view the ‘original’ Magna Carta in one or other of the great national collections of manuscripts, most often in the British Library in London. In reality, the charter sealed by King John at Runnymede has long ago vanishedWhat we have instead are 23 original exemplars, each of them hand written for delivery to a particular county or town. Only four of these come from the issue of 1215 (today preserved in the archives of Lincoln and Salisbury cathedrals, and in two instances in the British Library).
Far more survive from the subsequent reissues: a single original from 1216; four from 1217; four from 1225; four from 1297, and at least six from 1300. As a result, no less than a dozen institutional collections possess original Magna Cartas – two of them outside the United Kingdom. A 1297 Magna Carta was sold to Australia (in 1953) and another to the United States (in 1983). The American original, resold in New York in 2007, fetched $21.3 million – the highest price ever paid at auction for a single sheet of parchment.
8) Despite the immense fame of Magna Carta, many aspects of the document have been little studiedIn particular, between 1810 and very recent times, no attempt was made to assemble a list of its originals, let alone of the many hundreds of copies that survive. Work undertaken over the past few years has revealed many new things (for the absolutely latest discoveries see the website magnacartaresearch.org).
As recently as December 2014, an entirely unknown original of the 1300 Magna Carta was brought to light in the archives of the borough of Sandwich in Kent. At much the same time, researchers proved that one of the originals of the 1215 Magna Carta – today in the British Library – previously supposed to have come from Dover Castle, in fact originated in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral.
Documents in the National Archives have revealed that in 1941 Winston Churchill seriously entertained the possibility of gifting Lincoln Cathedral's Magna Carta to the people of America. As late as 1976, a similar proposal was raised – this time by Winston Churchill's grandson, and in respect to one of the British Library's Magna Cartas – intended as a ‘centre-piece’ for British celebrations of the bicentennial of America's declaration of Independence.
Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on show at the British Library, London, from 13 March–1 September 2015. For more information, and to book tickets, visit www.bl.uk