It has been 800 years since English barons negotiated a written peace agreement with King John. The original June 1215 agreement was revised and reissued numerous times, with the 1217 version gaining the title Magna Carta (“Great Charter”). Over the centuries, the document has had a powerful influence of the evolving British legal system and government.
The Great Charter will be explored at a Cato conference this week, and David Boaz recently blogged about the document’s importance to the American founding.
If you are interested in a very brief primer, I noticed this article (page 64) by British historian David Starkey in BBC History magazine. Starkey describes the 1215 charter as a radical break, and also the beginning of a long evolutionary process of building parliamentary government in Britain.
Here is the magazine’s summary of a conversation with Starkey, who has an upcoming book on the topic:
Magna Carta was initially drafted in 1215 in an attempt to broker peace between England’s barons and the unpopular King John. It failed, and the country was plunged into civil war. Following John’s death the charter then underwent a series of revisions over the next decade. An updated version was issued in 1216 by the government of his successor, the young Henry III, in an attempt to placate the rebels. Having won the war, the king issued a new edition in 1217 in order to cement peace. The final version was produced in 1225 in return for a grant of taxation.
And here are some of Starkey’s thoughts:
[Magna Carta] set out to do three things. Firstly, to bridle a king, John, who was dangerous and unpredictable and made his whim the law, and secondly, to make it impossible for any other king to rule in the same way. It was successful in both of those things. The third thing was the great change, and something very different: it set out to create machinery that absolutely bound any king in iron to its measures.
… One of the things that we forget is that the Magna Carta of 1215 had 62 or 63 clauses, while the long-term one has in the region of 40. A third of it was struck out in 1216 …
… It had an immense and immediate impact on law and on the development of law. Individual clauses are very quickly pleaded. What’s striking is how many copies were circulated. It forced governments to behave differently, and set rules for good behaviour and, once the charter was reissued in 1225, it became impossible to impose general taxation without consent.
I think you are repeatedly struck by the ambition of 1215. Whatever you may think about the motives of the people like Robert Fitzwalter, clearly I rather respect ambition. I respect radicalism; I don’t necessarily like it, but I respect it. They are intellectually ambitious, which is impressive whatever one thinks. How do we go about setting an absolute monarch in chains?
… The year 1215 really is the beginning of a very particularly English politics – and I’m daring to use the word English – which has actually survived 800 years. The futures of England and the English political system are first sketched out in 1215 – or rather, in that crucial decade-long crisis of the charters from 1215 to 1225. You can trace so much back to that point: the whole dialogue of Whig and Tory; particular models of statesmanship that constantly repeat themselves; this crisis of charters leading directly to the establishment of parliament. The whole structure of parliamentary government really begins with the reissue of the charter in 1225.
For more on Magna Carta, the British Library website has useful resources.