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Signing Magna Carta

King John signing Magna Carta at Runnymeade 15 June 1215

Foundation of British democracy or historical relic? Dominic Alexander looks at how the meaning of Magna Carta has always been shaped by class struggle and rebellion

Magna Carta, the agreement made between King John and his great barons in 1215, could easily be dismissed as an elite stitch-up designed to protect the holdings of feudal barons. So, it could be seen unworthy of any sympathetic interest on the part of the left, because it stands as a conservative symbol of Britain’s political continuities. In fact, while Magna Carta has indeed been claimed by the right, it is also true that almost every shade of political opinion has made use of it over the years as some kind of touchstone. Levellers, eighteenth and nineteenth-century radicals, working-class Chartists and the Suffragettes all invoked it. So Magna Carta has been an anti-establishment symbol as well. The question might nevertheless occur whether the Great Charter is a useful symbol for the present, or whether it should be disposed of as a relic of a distant past.

Magna Charta Banner

You could be forgiven for taking a sceptical view on the value of Magna Carta with the government sponsored celebration of the anniversary of its first appearance in 1215. Ludicrously, the official website bills the anniversary as the commemoration of ‘800 years of democracy’. Notoriously, the most famous clause of Magna Carta, (chapter 39) protecting all freemen from arbitrary treatment by the state, actually thereby excluded the overwhelming majority of the population, unfree peasants.

‘No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised [property seized], or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, nor will we send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.’[1]

The establishment celebration of Magna Carta always brings to mind Sellar and Yeatman’s un-improvable summary:

‘1. That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason – (except the Common People). 2. That everyone should be free – (except the Common People).’[2]

In fact, ever since the French Revolution, Magna Carta has been exploited by the right as a contrast to the supposedly terrible consequences of the principles of that democratic uprising.[3]

Magna Carta: a threat to authority

The theme has remained stable to recent times. One historian, Geoffrey Hindley, recently praised Margaret Thatcher for claiming Magna Carta’s superiority to the tradition of the Rights of Man and the French Revolution. Hindley opined that ‘constitutional tradition based on law must be more secure than one based on a rhetorical appeal to theory’.[4] This statement is astonishing in its historical vacuity. It amounts to no more than saying that the one is better than the other because it is older. It entirely ignores the fact that the ‘tradition based on law’ was once no more than a violent imposition by rebels against a king, which was repudiated as soon as that king, John, was able to re-gather his forces. Far from representing constitutionalist development, Magna Carta was born of a hard fought civil war.

Moreover, the charter was immediately condemned by Pope Innocent III specifically as an unacceptable affront to the authority of king and Pope. Rather than being granted by the grace of the king to his subjects, it was imposed by force, as the barons had ‘thrown over their oath of fealty’ and conspired in what was effectively a kind of revolutionary act, as Innocent describes it:

‘yet, openly conspiring as vassals against their lord and as knights against their king, they leagued themselves with his acknowledged enemies as well as with others, and dared to make war on him, occupying and devastating his territory and even seizing the city of London, the seat of the kingdom, which had been treacherously surrendered to them.’

The Pope continues to describe the dealings between the barons and the king in terms that are meant to underline the shocking behaviour of the former, concluding:

‘And so by such violence and fear as might affect the most courageous of men he [King John] was forced to accept an agreement which is not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust, thereby lessening unduly and impairing his royal rights and dignity.’

There is an important clause, existing only in the 1215 version of Magna Carta, which demonstrates the awareness of the rebels that a real political revolution was needed to enforce their victory over the monarchy. This is the ‘security clause’ under which 25 barons would be chosen to ensure the king did not go back on ‘the peace and liberties which the king has conceded’.[5] There was no naivety about the nature of political power here; the barons were attempting to make sure they would have the strength of organisation to defend any attempts by the king to reverse his defeat. There was also a temporary provision for the election of twelve knights in each county to investigate instances of royal abuse of rights, so the barons were being careful to represent broader social layers than just themselves, while also ensuring the hierarchy of landed power remained intact.

Whatever else may be said about Magna Carta, it does not support the view that English politics has developed by gradual, ‘constitutional’ or ‘lawful’ change. It is not entirely convincing to present Magna Carta as the foundation of the English constitution anyway, given several major upheavals in the interim; the revolution of the 1640s might spring to mind. Nonetheless, the argument falls apart on its own terms, when the events of the reign of King John and his successor, Henry III, are taken into account.

Famously, only three clauses of Magna Carta can be said to remain in law, including the promise that the king would not deny or sell justice, which went alongside the protection of freemen from arbitrary punishment. The other two are the protection of the liberties of the Church, and the liberties and customs of the city of London and other towns. Lying within the charter, in addition, are the origins of parliament and the principle that taxation can only be imposed with consent. There is much else that is important about the document, but from the point of view of later times, the contrast with the French Revolution and the radical demands for the ‘Rights of Man’, is stark. Magna Carta has largely to do with the protection of aristocratic property and interests. Despite the use to which Levellers and others made of it in ensuing centuries it is not easily interpretable as a document of social liberation.[6]

Yet it is in that gap between the original reality and its subsequent meaning where the importance of the document lies. It is not the letter of Magna Carta which makes it important; what matters are the events by which it came about, and the history of the struggles which built its remembered meaning. The immediate context of the baron’s revolt against King John was the latter’s financial exactions for military spending. An argument can certainly be made that John’s personal viciousness played a significant part in the strength of feeling against him. Nonetheless, his son, Henry III, faced persistent and, temporarily successful rebellions, largely due to the same structural issues of royal finance and war.

A product of civil war

The civil conflicts culminated in the rebellion of 1258-65, which aimed to permanently circumscribe royal power, and was thereby condemned even by Henry III’s rival King Louis IX of France. These events had the effect of embedding Magna Carta, and indeed parliament, into the political structure of the kingdom. The war of the baron’s party, led by Simon de Montfort, had stirred up forces they could not control, and the commoners, in the shape of knights and burgesses (elite townsmen) had to be included in the meeting of parliament.

The charter of 1215 itself could have been relegated to being a curiosity of history, since civil war erupted again very shortly after its agreement. It was only rescued by John’s death in 1216, whereupon his party re-issued a modified version in the name of his infant son, that year and again in 1217. This was enough to stymie the rebellion, which by this point was focused around Louis, the son of the king of France. The new charter effectively defeated Louis’ bid for the English throne, but it was re-issued once again in 1225 as Henry III needed a new tax to fight the French king over Gascony.

This very brief summary of the history of the charter would seem to confirm a traditional view of history as confined to the deeds and concerns of the most powerful in society, but it is the details and context which indicate a different dynamic to the whole story. The barons’ rebellion against John in 1215 was not merely an aristocratic conspiracy; the pivotal moment came when the barons’ army was able to enter London, with the clear support of the townspeople. This forced the king to come to terms. These events were thus not just another baronial rising, but had the support of a section of society of growing importance; merchants and craftsmen.

This was not the first time London had played a key role in English politics. During the struggle between King Stephen and Henry I’s daughter Matilda for control of the kingdom, Matilda looked set to triumph in 1141, her forces having captured Stephen. What upset this victory was the formation of a ‘commune’, a sworn association of townspeople, in London. One chronicler complained this was ‘a tumult of the people and a terror of the realm’.[7] Unexpectedly, the townspeople forced Matilda to retreat from Westminster, rather than be crowned there. Stephen’s party was able to recover from there, and the civil war resumed.

The revolutionary commune

London’s commune was likely inspired by the formation of such organisations in twelfth-century French and particularly Italian towns, where communes represented a real threat to feudal power. The London commune reappeared in 1191, when resentment exploded against William Longchamp, Richard I’s chancellor, left in charge of the kingdom while Richard was on crusade. Ironically John himself led the aristocratic party against Longchamp in a series of events which must have set precedents for the rebellion against him when he was king.

Longchamp was deposed at two assemblies in London, the second in a field east of the city, attended not only by the nobility, but by the citizens, and also very large numbers of ordinary townspeople. It is the townspeople who, foreshadowing what would happen in 1215, called the agent of royal power ‘a disturber of the land, and a traitor’, and refused to close the gates against the rebel party. These, arriving at night, were ‘received by the joyful citizens with lanterns and torches’.

A leading historian of medieval England, Michael Clanchy, had no hesitation in referring to the commune as a ‘revolutionary association’, and went on to say:

‘The removal of Longchamp by an association which claimed to speak for the English people and the Londoners in particular is therefore a significant step towards the articulation of public opinion as a political force.’[8]

The fall of Longchamp led to London’s commune becoming a permanent body of self-government for the city, but the episode had further consequences for the history of social conflict in England. The challenge to royal authority, and the clear involvement of the populace, rather than just the elite, almost certainly had profound consequences. Only a few years later in 1196, London’s poorer inhabitants erupted in a revolt against the unfair distribution of the tax burden. This uprising was led by one William Longbeard, a layman, but clearly performing the role of a holy man. A flavour of the radical nature of this attempted revolution can be found in one chronicler’s rendition of Longbeard’s speeches:

‘I am the saviour of the poor. Oh poor, who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and you may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble and faithful people from the haughty and treacherous people: I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.’[9]

William Longbeard was killed and the revolt suppressed, but this was no minor event, attracting accounts from many chroniclers. The later chronicler Matthew Paris, whose sympathies were not with the royal side in the conflicts of Henry III’s reign, even painted Longbeard in heroic terms. Paris also recorded that adherents of William Longbeard still existed in London in the 1250s. The common people now mattered enough that John himself evidently attempted to make use of them, in 1206 complaining that the city leaders were exploiting the poor to the detriment of royal revenues.[10]

The historical context of Magna Carta therefore shows that the document was not simply a conservative agreement between great lords and the king, but involved a political upheaval that changed the practice of politics in England. The barons’ conspiracy of 1215 was no traditional feudal challenge to royal power. It involved an attempt on the lords’ part to act as the head of a community of the kingdom in asserting that it could hold the king to account, and demand that royal power was exercised within definite rules.

Commoners, barons and kings

It was the participation of Londoners which enabled the lords to pose convincingly as the head of this nascent community of the nation. John himself had recognised the importance of London, attempting to gain the loyalty of the citizens with the promise that they would be able to elect their own mayor annually.[11] London evidently did not trust John, and allowed the barons into the city, while the then mayor was part of the negotiations at Runnymede. Thus chapter 13 of the charter promised that:

‘And the city of London is to have all its ancient liberties and free customs, by both land and water. In addition, we wish and grant that all other cities and boroughs, and vills and ports, have all their liberties and free customs’.[12]

It is clear, however, that the barons did not have the good of the townspeople at heart. Firstly, the assembly that was to provide ‘the common counsel of the kingdom’ (this is the origin of parliament) to give assent to taxation, was to consist only of archbishops, bishops, abbots and the greatest barons, who held their lands directly from the king.[13] It is remarkable that even London is not represented here, but the reason lies in the fact that if the barons prevented the king from freely taxing boroughs under his authority, then the lords themselves might be similarly prevented from raising revenues from the boroughs under their own jurisdiction.

Nonetheless, by 1265 towns were being included in the kingdom’s assemblies, as a parliament of commons and lords began to take shape. Moreover, the baron’s party of 1258 solidified itself by forming a commune, which was broadened to be ‘a commune of England’. The rebellion thus ‘derived its authority from the mutual oath taken by its members; it assumed that people were entitled to form associations and to use their combined force even to overawe the king.’[14] This is just one sign of how the consequences of Magna Carta went well beyond the intentions of the aristocratic party that drew it up. There are lessons here about the nature of law in a class society, which is part of the real legacy of Magna Carta.

Law and class conflict

Law is necessarily contradictory in a class society. It is far from disinterested, and entrenches the forms of property and social power that ensure the continuing dominance of the existing ruling class. Yet law is also there to regulate competition and rivalry between members of the ruling class, whether in a feudal or capitalist society. The endemic violence of the feudal nobility at many points in the middle ages may give people today the impression that feudalism was based on blunt force and arbitrary power (and sometimes that was so, just as it is sometimes the case under capitalist relations of production). In fact, law and custom were essential to the functioning of feudalism, and by the end of the twelfth-century England had one of the most centralised and rationalistic legal systems in Europe.

It was the very efficiency of the royal system of courts and laws that meant the lords needed Magna Carta. The exactions by royal power on the property of the nobility itself required a new legal settlement, which re-balanced the system in favour of the barons. Law in this example is evidently self-interested. Yet law is also ideology, part of the self-justification of the ruling class, so it needs to be internally consistent and seen to be universal, rather than purely partial, in character. This means that law can sometimes act in restraint of the ruling class, but only under certain circumstances, where there exist social forces that can challenge the elite.

The political upheavals of the early thirteenth century opened up space for a challenge to authority. The nobility led a ‘community of the realm’ against the king, but the likely result of any challenge to the highest authority is that those lower down the social scale may attempt to flex their independent social power. Since king and barons remained in periodic conflict for the better part of the rest of the thirteenth century, there were many opportunities for each side to attempt to break the impasse by appealing for support from below. Hence, boroughs eventually secured the right to send representatives to parliament.

This dynamic may also explain why, in 1225, Henry III’s new version of Magna Carta extended some important rights to unfree peasants. Moreover, the feudal lords found that in limiting the ability of the king to act arbitrarily, they had also undermined their own jurisdictions, because the principles and practices that applied in royal courts tended to be taken to apply in all lesser courts.[15]

Thus, to some extent, the unfree peasantry began to gain rights through Magna Carta. They did so not because of the generosity of their lords, but because they were surely demanding it. Outside of major peasant revolts, it is hard to perceive such struggles, particularly in the medieval period, but there is good evidence that they were happening. One sign is the concern of the ruling class itself that the peasants might revolt. King Henry I is famous for a nightmare about being attacked by all the orders of society, starting with the peasantry. This was taken seriously enough to be recorded and illustrated in a chronicle. Even in long periods between peasant uprisings, the calculations of lords and kings would have involved the possibility of catastrophic revolts.

There is more prosaic evidence as well, with instances from the thirteenth century of peasants attempting to sue their lords in royal courts.[16] The known examples show such attempts to be defeated to the ferocious scorn of those who wrote the records. Yet it must have been out of the weight of such cases that people began to prise new rights out of a legal system designed to keep them in subjection. It is at least an interesting co-incidence that peasants in Bocking, Essex, are known to have appealed to Magna Carta against their lord’s exactions in 1300, while 81 years later this was an important early epicentre of the great peasant’s revolt. [17]

Serfdom was abolished from below, as a consequence of the rising of 1381, but the peasantry’s idea of what their rights and freedoms should be, became attached to an idea of Magna Carta, among other remembrances of history. Magna Carta may have begun as an attempt to safeguard feudal property rights, but the dynamics of political and social struggle ensured it became very much more important than that. Magna Carta was made into a document about liberty by the many efforts of people to interpret it as such. This tradition was only just beginning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Meanings of Magna Carta

The lesson to draw from the history of Magna Carta is that law becomes what ongoing social struggles make it. Freedoms and liberties can be gained, but only so long as there is the organisation to keep them: there always needs to be a security clause. The suffragettes were right when they captioned an article in ‘Votes for Women’ on Magna Carta: ‘The story of how militant methods won the Great Charter.’[18]

The conservative interpretation of Magna Carta, in its various guises, fails the test of history due to the artificial insistence on continuities of authority and gradualism in English history, in contrast with revolutionary France. Moreover, if Magna Carta is to be held up as a foundation of ‘English values’, then it should be an absolute rebuke to a government which continues the policy of detention without charge. Terrorism laws like these have made a mockery of the notion that chapter 39 of Magna Carta remains in operation, even in spirit. If Magna Carta represents the beginning of a tradition of the rule of law, liberty and security for its citizens, then the range of discriminatory attacks on British Muslims encouraged by the whole establishment shows that this tradition is in grave danger of being destroyed by state and government.

Hard won liberties have never, of course, been safe in the hands of the state. The preservation and extension of ‘ancient liberties and free customs’, which at the time of Magna Carta encompassed economic as well as civil rights, have always been won or preserved by protest and struggle coming from below. The arch-reactionary seventeenth-century Archbishop Laud, a major ally of Charles I, had an instructive view of Magna Carta: ‘the Great Charter had an obscure birth from usurpation, and was fostered and shewed to the world by rebellion.’[19]


All illustrations are taken from the British Library Magna Carta exhibition: Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, which runs to September 1st 201

[1] Magna Carta, ed. David Carpenter (Penguin 2015), p.53.

[2] W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England (Methuen and Co, London, 1930), p.26.

[3] British Library Exhibition volume: Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, eds. Claire Breay and Julian Harrison (British Library 2015), p.158.

[4] Geoffrey Hindley, Magna Carta: the origins of liberty, from Runnymede to Washington (Robinson 2015), p.xvii.

[5] Magna Carta, Carpenter, p.337.

[6] The American Marxist, Peter Linebaugh has had an interesting go at such an interpretation, focusing on the nature of medieval property encompassing common rights; see The Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press 2008).

[7] Cited in Michael Clanchy, England and its Rulers 1066-1272 (Fontana 1983), p.128.

[8] Ibid, p.141.

[9] The History of William of Newburgh, trans. J. Stephenson (London 1856), pp.652-6.

[10] Magna Carta, Carpenter, p.118.

[11] Ibid. p.301.

[12] Ibid. pp.43-5.

[13] Ibid. p.45 and p.355.

[14] Clanchy, England and Its Rulers, pp.268-9.

[15] Magna Carta, Carpenter, pp.456-7

[16] Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 (Oxford 1979), p.49

[17] Magna Carta, Carpenter, p.457; R.H. Hilton and T.H. Aston, The English Rising of 1381 (Past and Present 1984), pp.30-1.

[18] British Library Exhibition: Magna Carta, p.222.

[19] Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution (Panther 1958), p.69.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He has been a Stop the War and anti-austerity activist in north London for some time. He is a published historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, a social history of medieval wonder tales