The long-lived charter: Magna Carta’s 800 year legacy

800 years ago today, Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede. In the last of our series celebrating the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s Parliament, Dr Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Historical Manuscripts at the British Library and lead researcher for the Library’s acclaimed Magna Carta exhibition, discusses how Magna Carta came to become an important symbol of the parliamentary system…

Though Magna Carta does not – as is occasionally claimed – represent the foundation of democracy, Magna Carta holds an important place in the history of parliament. In its medieval context it for the first time placed the executive under the rule of law and explicitly limited the Crown’s capacity to raise revenue without the consent of a ‘common counsel of the realm’. Clause 12 for instance stated that ‘No scutage or aid is to be levied…except by the common counsel of our realm…’ Whilst clause 14 insisted that the King was, ‘to obtain the common counsel of the realm for the assessment of an aid’ and that this counsel was to be ‘summoned…with at least forty days’ notice’ where the ‘business will go forward…according to the counsel of those present’. Such language describing a ‘common counsel of the realm’ summoned to discuss taxation are early iterations of what would later become known as parliaments. Indeed, still today some of the most vigorous debates in the House are on the level and extent of taxation in the country.

In later centuries, Parliament became one of the chief loci for debates using Magna Carta to assert the rights of the subject against the royal prerogative. In particular it was the Parliamentarians in the seventeenth century that reinterpreted and reinvented Magna Carta to defend their position against the encroachments of the Stuart monarchs. The man most responsible for this was the lawyer and politician Sir Edward Coke, who invoked Magna Carta at every opportunity in the courts of law, in the Houses of Parliament and in the prolific production of legal commentaries. For Coke, the Great Charter proved an essential document that underpinned the common law tradition and ensured the independence of the judiciary and Parliament from arbitrary royal interference. As the country plunged into Civil War in 1642, those Parliamentarians fighting Charles I followed Coke’s lead and continued to invoke Magna Carta as a symbol legitimising their violent opposition to the tyranny of the Crown. It was emblazoned on ensigns carried into battle and even described as ‘that which we have fought for’ by Thomas Fairfax, Commander in Chief of the New Model Army.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Magna Carta would continue to hold an important position in discussions surrounding the executive power of Parliament. But, it was used in a different way. Whereas in the seventeenth century Magna Carta was invoked in Parliament’s defence, in the eighteenth century it was used by political reformers to challenge that very power this elite and unrepresentative Parliament had won. Yet for all its invocations in the period – accelerated by the boom in printing and production of consumer goods that accompanied the industrial revolution – Magna Carta had become little more than a catch all symbol of ancient ‘English liberties’ that were under threat from an oppressive Parliament. It had become a slogan calculated to stir patriotic emotions and mobilise public support.

Porcelain figure of John Wilkes, holding a scroll inscribed ‘Magna Carta’.  © Trustees of the British Museum
Porcelain figure of John Wilkes, holding a scroll inscribed ‘Magna Carta’. © Trustees of the British Museum

Though Magna Carta was widely used throughout the eighteenth century, it was the MP and newspaper editor John Wilkes who capitalised most successfully upon the Charter to mobilise public opinion in his favour following his arrest, and subsequent exile to France, after he libelled King George III in 1763. Whilst abroad he ensured that he remained prominent within the public sphere, being represented in popular prints, porcelain, and private portraits all depicting him holding the Great Charter of English Liberties – which he was ostensibly defending. Helped by figures like Wilkes, the long eighteenth century saw a strong revival of the tradition of Magna Carta as a powerful public resource, a symbol readily mobilised and contested by rival political factions. Its regular appearance in the press as a defence against an over-mighty Parliament ensured that the prominence of the Great Charter in the legal textbooks was translated into a shared cultural appreciation which was sustained well into the nineteenth century and arguably right up to the present (where it is still invoked in satirical cartoons).

Such powerful radical propaganda created a strong connection between Magna Carta and parliamentary reform in the popular imagination. Indeed, so strong was it that when the Reform Act of 1832 was passed it was explicitly represented as a new Magna Carta. This was not the last time that Magna Carta would be raised in connection with Parliamentary Reform. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was but the first in a series of legislative developments that paved the way to universal suffrage in 1928 and in the agitation for these later reforms Magna Carta continued to be lionised. From the eccentric Magna Charta Association of the 1870s to the Suffragettes, Magna Carta persisted as a useful symbol of legitimate political rights and set a precedent exonerating direct (even violent) political action. Most prominent in this respect, however, was its use by the Chartists between 1838 and the early 1850s. The choice of the word ‘charter’ in this context was significant. Developing as it did upon the long tradition of radical appropriation of the Great Charter, the allusion to Magna Carta was one which all politically active contemporaries would have been aware; representing the People’s Charter as a new Magna Carta that would ultimately secure the political rights of all classes.

Given this rich history, it is unsurprising that Magna Carta has remained a powerful symbol for parliamentarians up to the present and has even found its way into the fabric of the building at the Palace of Westminster, whose gothic architecture has a purposefully medieval feel. Looking down into the chamber of the House of Lords are the sculptures of sixteen barons and two bishops who were present at the sealing of Magna Carta. Commissioned in 1847, their purpose was to remind the Lords of their ancestors who helped achieve the ‘common counsel’ of Parliament on Runnymede meadow in 1215. They were designed to be ‘severe and monumental’, to inspire their reputed descendants to act with equal focus, tenacity and courage in the prosecution of the business brought before them in the House.


Alexander Lock is Curator of Modern Historical Manuscripts at the British Library and was lead researcher in the post-medieval legacy of Magna Carta for the British Library’s acclaimed exhibition on Magna Carta which is open until 1 September 2015.

You can read all the posts in our ‘Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’ series here. The series is in preparation for our ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, which will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.

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 and the new digital arts project ‘Democracy Street’.

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