Jeremy Lefroy’s speech (Sunday 14th June 2015) at St Mary’s Church, Stafford to mark the 800th Anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.
What would have been the main news stories in 1215?
A struggle with the Continent; a treasury chronically short of cash; disagreements with Scotland; and a battle over a document setting out some basic rights.
At first sight we don’t appear to have made much progress in the past 800 years. But we have indeed.
We no longer settle disputes in the UK by recourse to arms as King John and his barons did; we use the ballot box.
But the fact that many of the matters which led to the Magna Carta of 1215 are still – albeit in very different forms - argued over is significant. It tells me that they are engrained in human nature and ignored at our peril.
They are of course about the balance of power; but they are both expressed and addressed in a particularly English way. The Magna Carta contains a mixture of ideals – the right to be tried by one’s peers and not to have justice sold, denied or delayed – and the practical – the forbidding of fish weirs on the Thames and Medway.
The Magna Carta was an attempted solution to a very real problem. King John, having lost his territories in France, had spent the previous decade building up his revenues in order to try and regain them.
To do so, he found more and more ways of extracting money from his kingdom, and in particular the nobles and the church.
When he had a major argument with the Pope over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury – the Pope had his way and Stephen Langton became Archbishop – it ended up with the King being excommunicated and an Interdict being placed on the English church So John proceeded to confiscate the church’s revenues.
He drove barons into bankruptcy and imposed extortionate taxes on Jews, who were the only people permitted to lend money for interest.
But his attempt to reconquer parts of France failed and his funds were gone.
He made his peace with the Pope and opened negotiations with the barons on a new charter based on that of Henry 1. This contained a denunciation of recent corruption and invoked the good old times of Edward the Confessor.
But it was also very practical, with – as David Starkey writes in his book (Starkey, David. 2015. Magna Carta, The True Story Behind the Charter. Hodder & Stoughton)– “detailed provisions about inheritance, wardship and marriage which were key issues in the dispute between John and his barons….They were practical men who wanted practical solutions to practical problems.”
Throughout the early months of 1215, there was negotiation – some of it aided by Archbishop Langton - between John and the barons, accompanied by military action on both sides and a seizure of the lands of some by John.
A charter based on that of Henry I with additional clauses was presented to John. It seemed that this might be a solution to the crisis.
However at this point, in May, Robert Fitzwalter, the rebel commander took control of the City of London. John had been trying to win the favour of the City by granting it a new charter and the right to elect a new mayor every year. However there were strong memories of John’s heavy taxation and some leading citizens plotted to surrender the City to the rebels.
This duly happened on 17th May and was the turning point. Deprived of London, the capital, John had no option but to agree to the barons’ demands. This he did in what became the Magna Carta and which was agreed to by all parties in some form of ceremony or re-pledging of allegiance on 15th June 1215.
But within two months, civil war had started again in earnest, and the Magna Carta appeared already dead.
Before we see why that happened, let us look at what was actually in the document:
Firstly, it granted freedom to the English church.
Secondly it made several general provisions regarding land, marriage, debts and other matters which had been a cause of great controversy between John and his barons. It set a formal way of dealing with such matters, not one which was subject to the arbitrary whims of a monarch.
Thirdly, it dealt with practical matters which had clearly become a source of great irritation – the tendency, for instance, for the king simply to take horses and carts for transport without paying for them. The Magna Carta makes it clear that they should be paid for and even specifies the rate - 10 pence a day for a cart with two horses and fourteen pence if it had three horses.
Fourthly, it lays down the principles of what we now consider to be the foundations of a justice system:
“No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land….To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice…”
Fifthly, there were important matters concerning trade. The City of London, even in the 13th century, was a great source of wealth for the country through its trade. So free movement of traders was essential. Article 34 states: “All merchants, unless they have been publicly prohibited beforehand shall be able to go out of and come into England safely and securely and stay and travel throughout England, as well by land as by water, for buying and selling by the ancient and right customs free from all evil tolls, except in time of war and if they are of the land which is at war with us.”
It is fascinating that one of the important considerations in the discussions over the future position of the UK in the EU is ensuring that there is no serious detriment to the City of London. 800 years ago the Magna Carta was equally concerned to protect the City and its Trade though in this case – and rather ironically – by protecting freedom of movement.
But it was Clause 61 which had the greatest short-term significance and almost saw the death of the Magna Carta within months of its birth.
Under its terms, there was set up a committee of 25 barons who would effectively oversee the implementation of what John had promised to do and which gave them power over John if he did not do so. I will come back to that in a moment.
But as much as the contents of the Magna Carta were important in dealing with immediate problems and – in a few clauses – were of immense significance for the rule of law in our country, they nowhere speak of the liberty of all, representative government and fundamental human rights.
The rule of law is also perhaps less progressive that it can sometimes sound. Whether the imposition of the rule of law is necessarily a good thing – as 1066 and all that would say – depends on who is making the law and in whose interests. The rule of law in a country with a representative law-making assembly is very different from that in a dictatorship.
My parliamentary colleague Jesse Norman writes (www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/06/not-so-radical-jesse-norman-magna-cartas-conservatism) of those who signed the Magna Carta: “One can hardly imagine a group further removed from radical populism than the bishops and noblemen…The ‘free men’ whose rights it declares were barely one in seven of the male population.”
As Mr Norman points out too: “The charter was not a novelty. Rather, it codified and repeated rights that had long had currency; and its influence derived from later demands that each new sovereign repeat, and perhaps extend, them.”
It was one thing to sign the Magna Carta, quite another to ensure that its provisions were observed. The committee of 25 barons was designed to ensure that happened. But it of course changed the position of John from being that of king to that of subject. He had no intention of allowing that to happen.
John at first put on an outwardly good show and started to comply with some of the provisions. But at the same time he was also petitioning the Pope who came down strongly on his side, eventually condemning the Magna Carta as “null and void of all validity for ever.”
What a turnaround for someone who had been excommunicated by the Pope just a few years earlier.
Archbishop Langton had meanwhile been suspended from his office by the Pope as a result of what he saw as a failure to bring about a reasonable settlement between John and his barons.
Nowadays Archbishops are criticised for involvement in politics. Langton lost his job because he failed in his involvement.
John started on a campaign in the closing months of 1215 which brought immediate success. He went north as far as Scotland and captured Berwick. He then headed for East Anglia and took Colchester, another centre of rebel activity.
In desperation, the barons turned to France for help – and more specifically Prince Louis, the son of the hard-headed King Philip Augustus. They offered him the crown in return for his support. The tables were turned and John – whose health was beginning to fail and whose money had run out – did not stand up against Louis. He headed to East Anglia and then to Lincoln across the Wash – where he lost many men and much treasure in the quicksand. He died at Newark and was buried at Worcester.
That would seem to be the end for John’s immediate family and the beginning of a new dynasty from France.
But it did not happen so; and the Magna Carta played a central role.
Inexplicably, Prince Louis had not committed himself to the restoration of the Magna Carta.
At the same time, John’s infant son, Henry III, who had been quickly crowned king, was fortunate in having a very capable regent. William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, initially declined the role because of his age but was eventually persuaded. The papal legate, Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, was also given responsibility in John’s will for “support to (his) sons in obtaining and defending their inheritance.”
Between the two of them – Marshall with his great reputation as a soldier – and Guala who had the authority of the pope – they delivered a masterstroke.
They reissued the Magna Carta in the name of boy-king Henry III. There were major differences. Clause 61 with its committee of 25 – the cause of the most recent civil war – went as did several others. Some clauses were put on one side for future consideration.
But a great deal remained – the core of the Charter: rules governing the transfer of property, the reforms of the administration of justice; the provisions over trade such as free movement and standardisation of weights and measures.
The Magna Carta, which in June 1215 had been the work of rebels imposed on an unwilling king and pope, was now being promulgated by the king and pope.
What had been considered extreme was now – with suitable amendment – at the centre ground of politics.
As Professor Starkey (Starkey, 2015) writes:
“This guaranteed the future of the Charter. It also set a precedent for the future course of reform in England. Time and time again, as in 1215-16, the clothes of the radicals would, after much chewing of fat and occasional spilling of blood, be stolen by the conservatives and, after a modest amount of retailoring, be discovered to fit perfectly.”
The tables were turned. The French force was defeated at Lincoln and, after an unsuccessful attempt at bringing reinforcements from France, Louis negotiated a settlement.
Here again, Marshall showed his wisdom. The terms were not onerous. Louis returned to France with a payment of 10,000 marks. The rebel barons were given an amnesty with lands returned to them; and of course they had their Magna Carta, albeit a somewhat different version to that of 1215.
Once Louis had gone, Magna Carta was again reissued. The changes made were practical. Clauses such as 50 which prevented some foreigners from holding senior positions in Government were dropped – because Henry III himself had foreign advisers. The provisions regarding forests were put into a separate charter called the forest charter. So it was then that the Magna Carta started to become known as the Magna Carta – the great charter – to distinguish it from the forest charter.
Then in 1225, when Henry III became 18 years of age, he published another version.
This time the king promised to uphold and observe the customs of the realm and in return “all of our realm have given us a fifteenth part of all their moveables.” In other words, taxation in return for fair and just government.
This was no dead letter. Discussions between the king and nobles over taxation became proto-parliaments. For instance in 1242, Henry requested funds for a military expedition to France but was refused because “the king had never, after the granting of the thirtieth (a previous tax) abided by his charter of liberties, nay had since then oppressed his subjects more than usual.”
These disputes escalated with Simon de Montfort taking the lead in confronting the king and eventually summoning a parliament whose composition went beyond the traditional noblemen but included knights and burgesses. That was in 1265 – and so we celebrate the 750th anniversary this year as well.
De Montfort made the reconfirmation of the charters a centrepiece of his demands. As Dan Jones (Jones, Dan. 2014. Magna Carta, The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter. Head of Zeus Ltd) writes in his excellent book, “De Montfort’s insistence on reconfirming the charters in 1265 was also an illustration of just how symbolically potent the mere name of Magna Carta had become for anyone seeking to put their name on English government. De Montfort sought legitimacy. He found it by wearing the badge of Magna Carta.”
By the sixteenth century, Magna Carta seems to have been regarded much more as a legal document than one of constitutional significance. To put it in very simplistic terms, civil wars and the upheavals on the continent over the reformation meant that people were more concerned about the peace of the realm, strong government and protection against potential invasion. There was also the advantage that most of the Tudors were remarkably effective rulers.
The constitutional role of Magna Carta came to life again under the Stuarts and particularly Charles 1, with - as Dan Jones put it - his “autocratic, arbitrary and absolute means.” (Jones, 2014)
Charles’s opponents found historical precedent in the Magna Carta – an out-of-control king being brought back into line.
It was championed strongly by Sir Edward Coke. In 1619, he told the House of Commons that it had earned its name – great – “not for the largeness but for the weight.” It is the idea which lay behind the Magna Carta which was powerful – rather than its individual clauses.
The Bill of Rights of 1689 can be seen as a further evolution of Magna Carta – not so much in its specific provisions which went far beyond those of Magna Carta, but from the fact that it followed the chasing out of a king who was seen as a tyrant and codified rights which had gradually been accrued and which had been disregarded by the king.
Across the Atlantic, the principles of the evolving Magna Carta formed part of the basis of constitutions of the new colonies – no taxation without consent, no imprisonment without due process.
But as Dan Jones writes: “One of the great paradoxes of the Magna Carta is the fact that the less relevant most of the document’s words become to modern life, the greater the reverence that attaches to its name. Magna Carta is today used as a byword for all types of aspiration to freedom, liberty and (quite erroneously) democracy.” (Jones, 2014)
Sir Winston Churchill was more accurate than most when he wrote that the Magna Carta was “the foundation of principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles dreamed.”
Magna Carta has become so much more than was originally meant because it was not a dry theoretical treatise dreamed up ignoring the realities of human nature. It was a practical document which went to the heart of a matter which confronts every generation – how to keep the powerful in check and protect the rights of individuals from their excesses while allowing them the ability and resources to govern.