Magna Carta revisited

Today I am posting twice about Magna Carta, in commemoration of the Parliamentary exhibition of the four extant versions of the document. This first post is a reissue of last year’s offering a brief guide to the Charter.

I agree with the Prime Minister that Magna Carta is seen to be a seminal document of English history. I am happy that it should be honoured and remembered for its 800th birthday. It has come to represent the important assertion of the right to a free trial, an early statement of an Englishman’s liberties, and part of the long process to control the powers of the King or the executive government.

I disagree with those, including some who write into this site, who see Magna Carta as a timeless document setting out our liberties in a way which we can never amend or alienate. Magna Carta was a staging post on a long journey to liberty. It was a step forward in curbing the power of the Crown, but it can tell us nothing about our rights vis a vis the EU or the ECJ.

Magna Carta was a peace treaty between the barons and the Crown. It set up a group of 25 elected peers to try to ensure good conduct on the part of the King after signing. At its best it set out eternal truths and freedoms which we still value. At its worst it was unkind and partial. Often it now strikes us as being archaic and irrelevant, as many of the grievances it sought to tackle were rooted in a feudal system which no longer applies.

Few today would want to see its clause about women and justice enforced. “No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband”. Nor would the right to give heirs in marriage “but not to someone of lower social standing” pass muster.

Its comments on foreigners might be more popular with the UKIP tendency: “As soon as peace is restored we will remove from the kingdom all foreign knights, bowmen, their attendants and the mercenaries”, but difficult and contentious to enforce today.

Removing all fish weirs on rivers is not such a central preoccupation as in 1215, as we have gone for windmills rather than for water wheels on rivers and rely more on sea fishing that river fishing.

The first requirement that the “English Church shall be free and its liberties unimpaired” has less relevance in a multi faith UK. The second embedded a “fair” rate of Inheritance Tax which might be to modern liking as it now seems low owing to inflation and only applied to Earls and Knights. Earls could not be charged more than £100, and knights not more than £5.

We still like the emphasis on fair trial for those accused, and the system of fines proportionate to the offence.

So to those who worship Magna Carta and dislike what successive Parliaments have done to it, I suggest you first read it in full.

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9 Comments

  1. DaveM
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    It’s obviously a document written for different times but ultimately it reflects the mentality and nature of English people, and its principles should therefore be embedded in our modern “constitution”. To wit:

    1. Accountability of leaders to the people
    2. A fair justice system requiring fair trial and evidence
    3. The right to self-determination and defence

    As you say in your second post, it is the EU which is changing this and going against the nature of the English. It is the fact that the leaders of today’s political parties (who presumably know all of this) are wilfully aiding the EU in its desperate attempts to subvert the people of the UK (and Europe as a whole) which is so baffling. If only they’d explain their reasons for wanting to give away our sovereignty and make us live in a way which is alien to us.

  2. rick hamilton
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Those who have not seen Magna Carta might like to know that there is a permanent exhibition in the British Library which can be seen free of charge only a stone’s throw from St Pancras. Perhaps any British politician travelling by Eurostar to represent us in the EU should make a compulsory visit to this gallery first.

    By the way I am not so impressed JR by your reference to a “multi faith UK”. As I understand it the Queen is still head of the Church of England and Christianity is the established faith in our country, whether minorities or recent arrivals like it or not. The Prince of Wales is reported to have said that we should stick to our Christian values while allowing others freedom of religion, which hits the nail on the head for me.

    • Kenneth R Moore
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      I would echo those comments re ‘multi faith’. Why wont anyone stand up for Britain being a Christian country and denounce the PC weasel words about multi-culturalism or multi -faith which amounts to the same thing.
      Each faith has it’s own values, cultures and ideas but those here have an obligation to follow the majority view if we are to have one nation not a series of ghettos.

  3. APL
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    JR: “It was a step forward in curbing the power of the Crown, but it can tell us nothing about our rights vis a vis the EU or the ECJ.”

    Of course it does. The ‘Crown’ today, is the EU and ECJ. You, all, in Parliament subjected the population and institutions of this country to the jurisdiction of the EEC/EU, ( in contradiction of centuries of law and the blood of countless subjects of the Crown ) usurping the settlement of three centuries and imposing an additional tier of government, that now holds ultimate power in these former independent realms.

    The Great Charter has just as much to say about abuse of power from this new imposed tier of government as it did about abuse of power by our once legitimate government.

  4. Bazman
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    You are right John. It could be argued that Magna Carta was an agreement between the King and the Barons, but the average person of the day was just as oppressed.
    An elite looking after themselves with the population receiving the resulting gains or losses still exists today with anyone who opposes this being called a socialist. Or a freeloader, freeloading and socialism seemly not applying to them, even though they benefit the most. Deluded trickle down economics that few want to argue about as today as they still believe in the divine right of Kings. Magna Carter like cardboard over Paris and an excuse for laissez faire economics and Darwinism finance neither of which applies to them. In extreme cases even the denial of evolution and any science that contradicts their religious views. You know who you are. At first you deny that such technology can exist and then when confronted that it does want ever more evidence that it is viable. When this is proved still do not believe it is true or could work, at the same time telling us about the importance of science and fact and accusing them of heresy.
    Ain’t nowt new under the sun, even solar panels.

  5. CHRISTOPHER HOUSTON
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    The last witch was burned in England ( official date 1716 but there were some afterwards and more much later in Ireland ). She was given a fair trial.

    There is a great difference between Principle, Procedure , Outcome and, Reality.

    #I did not vote for the Leader of my… Free World.
    #I did not vote for any war

    The Magna Carta might just as well have been an ancient chocolate covered ice-cream.

  6. CHRISTOPHER HOUSTON
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    There have always been machinations within groups of the strong and powerful to better share out the booty of society and such writings are always attired with majestic high-sounding rhetoric. We should note the scribes of old were masters of satire, overly ornate language, grandiose overstatement to flatter the beasts for whom they worked.They could not simply hand in their notice at Ye Olde Daily Telegraph and apply for another position at the Venerated Times Many.

    Think of William the Conqueror praised by ancient scholars and even by some modern historians. His first act after the Battle of Hastings was to have his table set up full square in the centre of the battlefield amongst hundreds of bloody dead, wailings of the wounded and have a thoroughly good meal Al fresco.

  7. Jon
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Just as I have effective vote in the election of Jean-Clause Junker so he has no real need to canvass nor ask what or my kind think. A backward step for the UK.

  8. Robert Taggart
    Posted February 10, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Perhaps you could come up with a revised working of Magna Carta ? – relevant for our times – Johnny.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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