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Magna Carta

One of the four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta containing the famous clause ‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

Magna Carta was a small but significant crack in the edifice of class oppression which remains to be fully torn down writes Sean Ledwith

The recent spectacle of the odious David Starkey extolling the virtues of Magna Carta for a BBC documentary might understandably tempt many on the left to dismiss the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter as an irrelevance at best and an ideologically-driven distraction at worst.  If a racist and Islamophobe like Starkey is such a fan, then surely Magna Carta has nothing to offer us in the 21st century?

Such a reaction, however, would be misplaced.  An examination of the treatment of the charter over those eight centuries reveals that it has frequently been a source of inspiration to many heroic figures not only in the tradition of resistance from below in Britain, but also around the world. The Levellers referred to the document as one of the catalysts for their attempts to push the dynamic of the English Revolution leftwards in the seventeenth century. In our own time, when the Zapatistas launched their struggle for autonomy against the Mexican government in 1994, their leader, Commandante Marcos, cited Magna Carta has one of the inspirations of the movement.

As Marxist historian, Peter Linebaugh, has observed, the document needs to be analysed on multiple levels and with an awareness of how the oppressed have frequently appropriated the content of Magna Carta to justify their defiance of tyranny and exploitation in a variety of struggles. The meaning of the deal reached between King John and his barons in the thirteenth century has been defined by two distinct traditions, he argues, one reflecting the voice of the oppressors and the other that of the oppressed through the ages. Linebaugh writes: ‘The former, inscribed on a granite plinth by the American Bar Association, stresses “freedom under law”; the latter stresses authority under law—it extends beyond protections from state power and, deeply rooted in the experiences of working people, offers rights of subsistence to the poor.’

Magna Carta myths

The traditional (and Starkey-style) image of the event is of an exceptionally recalcitrant monarch being brought to heel by principled nobles intent on establishing constitutional guidelines such as the rule of law and due process. Bourgeois historians in the UK have sought to portray Magna Carta as symptomatic of a peculiar British genius for effecting gradual reform without the need for decisive revolutionary action. The notion that our ruling class have always been more enlightened and far-sighted than their foreign counterparts is the corollary of this myth. Rudyard Kipling, unofficial poet of British imperialism in the nineteenth century, expressed this perspective:

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:
'You mustn’t sell, delay, deny,
A freeman's right or liberty.
It wakes the stubborn Englishry,
We saw 'em roused at Runnymede!


The conjuncture that led to the creation of Magna Carta can be traced to a convergence of military and economic crises which hit the English monarchy in the early thirteenth century. King John had already fought a series of disastrous campaigns in France in an attempt to cling onto the territories of the Angevin Empire acquired by his father. The need to fund these wars had led John to squeeze the baronial elite through revenue-raising measures known as the ‘incidents of feudalism’. This included financial charges on sons inheriting land, supervising widows awaiting re-marriage and the payment of scutage-sums payable by nobles to avoid compulsory military service. Prior to the crisis of 1215, John had demonstrated his ruthlessness in pursuing these revenues. When one of the King’s barons in Ireland had refused a summons to court in 1207, his wife and son were incarcerated and starved to death. Shortly after, 27 Welsh hostages were executed on the King's orders when their baronial fathers refused to display fealty to him. Widespread resistance to the expediency practised by John and his henchmen in pursuit of revenues is, of course, the root of the legend of Robin Hood that began to circulate at this time.

The Road to Runnymede

By early 1215, significant elements of the baronial clique had resolved to move against John's fatal cocktail of military failure, financial pillaging and arbitrary justice. In January, they took an oath that they would no longer accept the King's authority without a radical change in policy. By May, the rebels had control of London and had linked up with a nationalist uprising in Wales triggered by John's execution of the hostages. The rebels also offered the Scottish king control of northern England, leaving John boxed in and with no option but to negotiate. Runnymede, near Windsor, was chosen as a mutually acceptable rendezvous between the two forces in June. Over the course of five days, negotiations took place between John and the barons, leading to the proclamation of 63 clauses that were collectively known as ‘Magna Carta'-the Great Charter. The 63 clauses are often interpreted as the source of four key elements of Western jurisprudence: habeas corpus, the prohibition of torture, trial by jury and the rule of law. The two most famous clauses come around the midpoint of the agreement:

39 No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

40To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.

These were clearly the consequence of John's high-handed approach to the baronial elite, but equally significant in terms of Magna Carta's subsequent popularity with rebels and revolutionaries were those sections which offered limited but significant safeguards on women’s rights (clause 8 on marital rights of widows) and a statement of the rights of the peasantry to collect wood from the forests (clauses 47 and 48). Medieval monarchs like John had specialised in restricting access to England's extensive woodland in order to indulge in their favourite pastime apart from gratuitous warfare - gratuitous hunting!

This particularly significant section had to be re-affirmed two years later in the ‘Charter of the Forests’. This document - a vital revision of the 1215 agreement – was the outcome of the civil war that followed John’s almost immediate cancellation of the deal at Runnymede. The King had submitted in 1215 essentially as a stalling tactic, allowing him to re-arm and resume the suppression of the barons a few weeks later. The struggle between monarchy and nobility lurched on till the next year when John died in ignominy, fleeing an invading French army. A peace deal between the crown and the nobility permitted John’s nine year son, Henry, to accede to the throne on condition that the terms of the 1215 charter were confirmed.

The Charter of the Forests was the follow-up to Magna Carta that emphasised the rights of the commoners to exploit the resources of woodland without excessive control by the feudal aristocracy. In the subsistence economy of the time this was a vital breakthrough for the majority of the population that depended on forests for food, furniture, medicine and other essentials.

From Runnymede to Guantanamo

Magna Carta would be a catalyst of crisis when the English crown faced an even more existential threat in the seventeenth century. Charles I’s attempt to develop an absolutist monarchy encountered one of its initial obstacles when Chief Justice Edward Coke referred to clause 39 specifically to criticise the King‘s imprisonment of five opponents of royalist dictatorship. Coke was promptly locked up himself in the Tower of London for his opposition. When Charles learned Coke was working on an extended commentary of Magna Carta, he ordered the judge’s manuscripts be confiscated.

The King’s attempts to block the revolutionary tide failed and as the English Revolution unfolded its most politically advanced sections also looked to Magna Carta for inspiration. The Leveller leader, John Lilburne cited the document while he was on trial (and refusing to kneel in the dock) in the House of Lords in 1649

In the same year, Gerrard Winstanley of the Digger movement referred to Magna Carta to justify the occupation of vacant land by his followers in the south of England:

‘England, you know, hath been conquered and enslaved divers times, and the best laws that England hath…..were got by our forefathers’ importunate petitioning unto the kings…’

The regime of Oliver Cromwell that was suppressing the left of the English Revolution and harassing both men had conspicuously less sympathy for the tenets of Magna Carta. The Lord Protector bluntly dismissed the document as ‘Magna Farta’!

When the next wave of revolutions emerged in the eighteenth century, Magna Carta was a frequent starting point for mass mobilisation of the oppressed. The Sons of Liberty who spearheaded the American Revolution in Boston in the 1770s adopted a badge showing a rebel holding a sword in one hand and a copy of Magna Carta in the other. Thomas Jefferson sourced it as one of his inspirations for the Declaration of Independence. The People’s Charter drafted by the English Chartists as part of their pioneering campaign of working-class mobilisation was explicitly based on Magna Carta. In our own time - apart from Commandante Marcos - the document has been cited by opponents of Blair’s attempt to implement draconian detention laws and George Bush’s flimsy pretext of the ‘War on Terror’ as cover for the excesses of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.  US Supreme Court judge, Anthony Kennedy, referred to the charter as part of the majority decision to declare the conditions in the former location as unconstitutional in 2008. In the landmark case of Boumediene v. Bush, he noted: ‘the writ of habeas corpus became the means by which the promise of Magna Carta was fulfilled.The famous clauses 39 and 40 remain awkward stumbling-blocks for the King Johns of the 21st century.

Starkey and his ilk will seek to portray 1215 as a shining example of the foresight and wisdom of the English ruling class. As the descendants of the medieval commoners who won some respite from arbitrary despotism, we should regard Magna Carta as a small but significant crack in the edifice of class oppression which remains to be fully torn down.

Tagged under: History Democracy
Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters