15 Jun 2015

Magna Carta was about money – it wasn’t about a ‘law for all’

The central point about what King John signed up to in 1215 was that he – as a king – was not above the law. The second central fact is that about two months after signing up at Runnymede, he contacted the Pope to take it all back, via papal bull, and the Pope duly obliged, calling the document “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people”.

It would take John’s death and his son Henry III and another decade for Magna Carta to be fully reinstated.

So you have to take both facts together. The year 1215 is impressively early in the political life of our species to attempt something as obvious but clearly difficult as putting everyone – royalty included – under the law.

Royalty and every other shade of absolutists and dictators have similarly refused to come quietly under the law ever since, and many still do so to this day.

Centuries later, the “roi soleil” attitude of absolute monarchy so pervaded French culture and society that it took the sans culottes and Madame Guillotine to reset matters in the revolution. And that recalibration resulted in doing away with the monarchy altogether.

Magna Carta was never about that. It was never very magna in the first place. Principally it was all about money, not shifting power – a bunch of nobility fed up with tax hikes under King John was the motive, not some overarching and high-minded need to make the law work for all in theory.

Magna Carta at 800: what is the ‘great charter’?

So there was no great democratic intent – which is pretty obvious since there has been no great democratic shift in some ways. The monarchy in Britain still shows, occasionally, that  it does not like the law applying to it,  as it applied to us. Look no further than the years of wiggling from Prince Charles, as the heir to the throne fought against having his letters to various government departments being disclosed.

The aristocracy is still very much in place across the UK – as is the monarchy, of course. If you want to see how little matters have changed since it was signed, then look no further than the fundamental of land.

Very few  people still own very large swathes of land across the UK, and it is a pattern that would be recognised instantly by those barons who forced Magna Carta upon King John. And they would no doubt heartily approve of it.

That silent, unpoken reality gives the lie to all of the flummery you will hear today about Magna Carta and what it represents.

Of course, the attempt to place royalty under universal rule of law was a historic and extraordinary mission and hitherto all but unthinkable – but the move was from pragmatic self-interest to defend the status quo as much as alter it.

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7 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:



    Mainstream media is having an onanist fit over this. If you continue to put reality in front of them they’ll have to go back to school to acquaint themselves with the facts.

    Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Murdoch gang.

    So carry on, Tommo. It’s about time somebody tried to clean out the stables.

  2. Geckko says:

    Is this supposed to be a poor attempt at irony?

    Everyone knows all this, but they also know that 1215 was not 2015 and human rights weren’t even an alien concept, but no concept at all.

    Why does it matter why the English monarch become the first in the world to acknowledge in written admission that there were limits to his powers over his inferiors.

    A 100 mile journey starts with a single step and the scale and breadth of the freedoms you now enjoy and take for granted were conceived, if not born, at Runnymeade.

    Anyhoo, here is an irony. Channel 4 News would be at the vanguard of repealing the many freedoms, not granted by Magna Carta, but at least inspired by it.


  3. Anthony Thompson says:

    Except if you bother to read MC you find (e.g Clauses 38 & 39) the establishment of rights in law (e.g against arbitrary arrest) that are strikingly modern and fundamental to all our other freedoms. Mr Thomson takes MC for granted because he lives in a country whose laws have been informed by it for centuries. He wouldn’t be so cocky if he lived in most countries of the world.

  4. Alan says:

    Well written and commendable that the editorial ran this. Only criticism would stem from the platform used, as there is so much more the restrictions of this format prohibit.

  5. anon says:

    very interesting and perceptive as always, perhaps those teaching History should take a more accurate journalistic approach to their work similar to the outstanding work by Channel 4 News, unless the teaching of History is intended to remain different to the truth? in which case what is the point of it?

    Also I guess how many people would have known of this at all, or being able to read or understand it if they did, and it makes me wonder how far places like museums today using multi media and the like should effectively ‘sanitise’ and distort history? Does it educate, or does it deceive? Mislead perhaps being a kinder word. Should the PR people in the commercial sector ever help gloss over history to bring in the tourists?

    perhaps Magna Carta as you might imply, [sorry do not wish to misinterpret what you are saying] be not so much about freedom but ‘tyranny under a different (perhaps softer) boot’?

  6. tom says:

    An ‘accurate journalistic approach’… journalists are just as biased as everyone else. Money and Politics go hand in glove. The important thing about Magna Carta is that it challenged convention. No one can predict the outcome actions long time periods. The outcome of Magna Carta could have been an absolutist monarchy for the last 800 years. We are fortunate it was not.

  7. John Hill says:

    Despite all the facts available, journalists still go for “a story”.
    Fact: King John was making hay while the sun shone, as Big Brother was off in captivity, so John thought he would grab a “bit of action” as the saying goes.
    However he brassed off the Barons as well as the SaxonsThe “Nobles” were hit by the punitive grabs of the monarch.
    As the rich were not used to being stolen from…that was their job wasn`t it?, they were enraged and held the King to account a la Runnymede!
    Story missed the real point. Magna Carta abolished Absolute monarchy without the guillotine. MC was a standard upon which English Law was then based.
    Luckily it was built on, and despite the New Labour years of arrest without trial, and trial by Judge and unlawful detention that New Labour slipped into place, GB still has MC to point at to bring errant MPs to account.
    We are told repeatedly that GB may get a Written Constitution!
    Even Egypt now has a Constitution (which removed a President)! Sadly UK may have lots of separate legal avenues but a review of Magna Carta may just need to be REALLY updated to disallow greedy politicians from taking liberties with the freedoms of their bosses…the citizens!

    The USA has a Written Constitution, but even there, an unscrupulous President can issue “Executive Orders” to overrule or bypass Congress.

    People may try to belittle Magna Carta, but at least every child used to be able to be aware of it and its importance.(Obviously not pushed in education these days)!

    Magna Carta has resulted in Rulers across the world being held to account by law for their misdeeds.

    Perhaps media could celebrate it as 2015 IS the 800th Anniversary of that essential ancient step on the way to freedom, democracy and the rule of Law.?
    What a pity that certain (religious) parts of the world are blissfully unaware of its existence!

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