Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Alexander Lock, ‘Magna Carta: law, liberty and myth’

Our last ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar of term took place on 24 March. Dr Alexander Lock, one of the curators of the British Library’s current exhibition ‘Magna Carta: law, liberty, legacy’ spoke on the impact and legacy of the 1215 Great Charter. His paper covered the full eight hundred year history of Magna Carta, and described how a failed medieval peace treaty came to be one of the most important legal documents and an internationally recognised symbol of liberty under the rule of law.

Dr Lock began by discussing Magna Carta in its medieval context, as a peace treaty between King John and the rebelling barons that dealt with very specific grievances against John’s rule. For example, several clauses protected the rights of widows after John had been charging huge fees to give his permission for their re-marriage. On one infamous occasion John ‘auctioned off’ the right to marry his former wife, Isabella, Countess of Gloucester to Geoffrey de Mandeville who was forced to pay 20,000 marks for the privilege. It is in the context of John’s specific abuses of his rule that the most famous clauses still in existence should be read: clause 39, that no free man must be imprisoned without ‘lawful judgement of his peers’, and clause 40 – that justice must not be sold, denied or delayed.

'The boke of Magna Carta' translated by George Ferrers, 1534 (held in the BL)
‘The boke of Magna Carta’ translated by George Ferrers, 1534 (held in the BL)

Lock explained that Magna Carta only lasted a few weeks before it was annulled by the Pope: certainly a failure as a peace treaty. It was reissued several times by John’s heirs but by the time it was copied on to the first statute roll in 1297 many of its original clauses had been removed. The charter returned to obscurity for two hundred years until it was published in Latin and English during the early Tudor period, becoming the first statute that many student lawyers read during their training. This began its transformation into both a vital principle of Common Law but also as a political symbol of individual liberty.

For Tudor governments, Magna Carta could be troubling: the first clause on the liberty of the English Church was used against Henry’s religious settlement by those opposing the Reformation. Such opposition to the monarch was certainly not in fashion under Tudor rule and whilst men like Sir Thomas More literally lost their heads invoking it, others like William Shakespeare and George Peele purposefully missed it out of their plays on King John to help curry favour. It was in the early seventeenth century that the lawyer, jurist and MP, Sir Edward Coke, began to publicise Magna Carta as the best defence of ancient English rights, whose clauses 39 and 40 ensured the independence of the judiciary and Parliament in the face of growing Stuart absolutism.

In the case of the Common Law, the popularisation of the Great Charter had significant consequences. It was written in to law codes in English colonies across the world, most importantly of course, in the American colonies. Yet the political strength of Magna Carta from the seventeenth century onwards, Lock argued, was its malleability as a symbol. The charter was used to defend positions on both sides during the English Civil War. It was used by 18th and 19th century radicals to justify opposition to Parliament: most famously by the US colonists during the US War of Independence, but also by British radicals such as John Wilkes and Sir Francis Burdett. Images of the charter peppered political cartoons and popular prints, but by this time there was very little understanding of the medieval context of the charter.

Cartoon captioned “Magna Carta” in Votes for Women, 27 January 1911 (held in the BL)
Cartoon captioned “Magna Carta” in Votes for Women, 27 January 1911 (held in the BL)

Magna Carta continued to be used throughout the world as a political rallying point and is still being used so today. The suffragettes used it to justify their direct action for the vote; clauses 39-40 were consciously echoed in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights; it has been used against the US government on behalf of inmates at Guantanamo Bay. For Lock, this legacy owes much more to its popularisation and interpretation in the seventeenth century than to its original medieval context.


Parliaments, politics and people will return next term: full details available here shortly.

The British Library exhibition on Magna Carta is open until 1 September 2015. UK Parliament are also coordinating a series of events to celebrate the anniversary: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition at Westminster Hall; the new digital arts project ‘Democracy Street’ and they invite you all to take part in ‘LiberTeas’ on June 14.

You can read more about Magna Carta’s legacy in our current blog series marking the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s parliament.

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