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.