Magna Carta and all that.


             King John

” The law of this great England! Magnus Carter and all that! ” – Arthur Daley.


Magna Carta (‘the Great Charter’) was the first fundamental legal document in Britain confirming or granting individual rights. It began life as a programme of reform drawn up by rebel barons opposed to the misgovernment of the incompetent and treacherous English King John.

The rebels captured London and in 1215 forced John to accept the terms of the document which would later become known as Magna Carta. It’s important to point out that the barons’ intention was not to produce a document enshrining universal human rights – the concept would not gain a toe-hold until the 18th century – but rather to protect their own interests against the Crown. Nevertheless, in so doing, they inadvertently conferred rights which benefited people more generally and the idea of Magna Carta itself became a meme which evolved to acquire the iconic status of foundational human rights document.

Magna Carta (The Great Charter) to which King John set his seal at Runnymede in                                1215

The charter dropped in and out of favour over the years, but eventually it was incorporated into England’s statute law and became part of English political life. It gained a particularly high profile in the early 17th century when it was invoked by people like the famous judge and jurist Sir Edward Coke who pushed back against the Stuarts’ ‘divine right of kings’. Indeed, James I and Charles I both attempted to suppress discussion of the charter. Charles quite lost his head over it. Coke, on the other hand, went on to have a successful career in the fizzy drinks business.

The political myth of Magna Carta was enduring. In the 18th century, it informed both the Constitution of the United States of America as well as the various states’ constitutions themselves. As a document whose original purpose was to check the authority of a king, it was perfectly suited to the needs of a nation founded on distrust of concentrated political authority in the form of an oppressive colonial power.

Modern relevance

Much of Magna Carta is irrelevant today, as it is rooted in the feudal (and feuding) politics and legal system of 13th century England. Here’s a taste:

Let the king remove entirely from office the kinsmen and whole brood of Gerard d’Athée, so that they may not hold office in future: namely, Engelard, Andrew, Peter and Guy de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné, Matthew de Martigny and his brothers; and his nephew Geoffrey, and Philip Mark. (3)

So there, Guy de Chanceaux! Put that in your pipe and smoke it! Bog off back to Dijon and stop wearing purple pantaloons like the English! You big girl’s blouse!

Most of Magna Carta’s clauses have been revoked, its rights protected by other legal provisions. However, three clauses remain on the statute books, the most famous being clause 29 which states that:

The body of a free man is not to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way ruined, nor is the king to go against him or send forcibly against him, except by judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.[1]

This principle informs what we would nowadays call the ‘rule of law’, i.e., that government should be carried on according to law and not subject to the caprice of those in power.

In the U.S., clause 29 is generally understood to have provided the foundation of the ‘due process’ clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments which states that no one shall be ‘deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law’. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly referenced Edward Coke’s analysis of Magna Carta as an antecedent of the Sixth Amendment’s right to a speedy trial.

Magna Carta is still occasionally invoked. In 2008, Tony Benn (a British socialist politician) spoke out against the proposal of extending the length of time a terrorist suspect could be held without charge, suggesting that this would mean ‘repealing’ Magna Carta. He was referring to clause 40, which states that ‘to no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice’.

While Magna Carta is no longer of much practical legal significance, its status as a symbol of liberty is alive and well today. The famous (and colourful) English judge Lord Denning (1899-1999) described it as ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’. In a world environment rife with despots, who think nothing of sweeping aside democratically elected governments, poisoning dissenters, and ‘correcting’ religious minorities, the Magna Carta meme is set to continue to thrive and replicate.

Richard Dawkins, discoverer of memes

And lest we forget, it was Magna Carta which set the royals off on their long road to the plinth of inconsequential parasitism where they find themselves precariously perched today. We don’t need barons to hold them to account; we got Oprah.

Magna Carta Funnies

A tour bus full of noisy Americans arrived at Runnymede, England. They gathered around the tour guide, who told them that they were standing near the spot where the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. A large man pushed his way through the crowd and asked, “When did that happen?” “1215”, the guide answered. “Goddamn! We missed it by half an hour!”, the man exclaimed.

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain? Brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past ten! Is all this to be forgotten?

Tony Hancock, Twelve Angry Men.

Language questions

1. Look at this extract from the text above:

Nevertheless, in so doing, they inadvertently conferred rights which benefited people more generally…

Question: If the past of fit is fitted, why is the past of benefit not benefitted?

2. Magna Carta is Latin for Great Charter. What is the Latin for the following?

  1.  The fact speaks for itself
  2.  Among other things
  3.  From the start
  4.  Elsewhere
  5.  It is a wretched state of slavery which subsists where the law is vague or uncertain.
  6.  What did the Greeks ever do for us?

3. Look at this extract from the text

It began life as a programme of reform drawn up by rebel barons opposed to the misgovernment of the incompetent and treacherous English King John.

 Mis- is a prefix which means wrong(ly) or incorrect(ly) or simply indicates a negation.

Add mis- to the front of a form of the following words and use them to complete the following sentences:

rule          judge       conduct       represent      appropriate       speak

  1. An untrue or misleading statement of fact is known as a ______________________.
  2. A cat with cataracts may experience uncertain footing and _________________ distances when it jumps.
  3. Hillary Clinton has been struggling to downplay suggestions that she deliberately tried to exaggerate the role she played in world events in her years as first lady after admitting she “_________________________” in a recent description of a 1996 visit to Bosnia by claiming she landed amid sniper fire.[2]
  4. Emperor Nero’s ______________ and excesses fuelled a series of civil wars which continued after his suicide in A.D. 68.
  5. The unauthorised, improper or unlawful use of funds or other property for purpose other than that for which it is intended is called ________________________.
  6. _____________________ in public office is an offence at common law triable only on indictment. It carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The principle of limiting arbitrary rule also lies behind the Bill of Rights of 1688, which is the subject of the next post.

Vayan con Dios.

[1]  ‘The Articles of the Barons: Article 29’, The Magna Carta Project, trans. H. Summerson et al.


[3] ‘The Articles of the Barons: Article 40’, The Magna Carta Project, trans. H. Summerson et al.

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