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No, Prime Minister, Magna Carta is nothing like fish and chips: here's what it really says

David Cameron wants children to be taught about Magna Carta in his drive for “British values”, but here are some things the revered document actually says that may not come under that banner...

Fish and chips. Photo: Getty
Magna Carta was more tomorrow's fish and chip paper than as British as fish and chips. Photo: Getty

The Prime Minister is very concerned about Magna Carta. It’s as if he was suddenly repeatedly BBM’ed by a load of impatient feudal lords who want their bite out of the political news cycle for once.

So, despite having infamously admitted in 2012 that he didn’t know what the name of the document meant, David Cameron has now decided it’s time to break that cycle of ignorance and teach school children of all different backgrounds about the great charter of 1215. He’s also invited guests to a Magna Carta reception at Downing Street. Sadly, the invitation read “Magna Carter”. He’s right; it’s time for teachers to step in.

Next year is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the original charter by King John at Runnymede (“between Windsor and Staines”, as the original, pre-Google Maps source helpfully explains), and the PM wants to use this as an opportunity for children to learn about it, and for Britain to celebrate it.

He wrote this in the Mail, in a piece responding to the "Trojan Horse" furore engulfing some schools in Birmingham. In the article, he suggests that "British values" such as Magna Carta's legacies – the rule of law, rights, liberties, etc – are as important as the “Union flag, as football, as fish and chips”. Good, honest, old-fashioned English fare – as Gordon Ramsay would probably describe this new curricular vision.

But here are parts of the country’s favourite crusty old scroll, taken from the British Library’s translation, which the PM may think twice about teaching as part of “British values”:


You can inherit through marriage, but not if you’re a pleb

(6) Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to the heir's next-of-kin.


All those debt-collecting Jews should lose out

(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.

(11) If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands. The debt is to be paid out of the residue, reserving the service due to his feudal lords. Debts owed to persons other than Jews are to be dealt with similarly.


A woman appealing doesn’t really count – unless it’s about her husband

(54) No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.


Obviously we can’t expect historical sources to care one jot about sexism, anti-semitism and class divides. Everything, however unpalatable, should be taught for a reliable picture of the document’s context. But these archaic little clauses in the charter point to a bigger flaw in Cameron's contract to educate Britain. Talking about Magna Carta in reverential, patriotic terms – as if its handful of enlightened ideas is unique to Britain – will help no child develop a proper understanding of its historical significance. Not least because weeks after it was sealed, the king renounced it and the barons revolted. Identifying its flaws, and tracing its mutations, and disappearances under future rulers, rather than passively viewing it as something as innocently “British” as fish and chips, is a more honest approach.

But in his response to potential "extremism" in our schools, it’s clear the PM is looking to placate some unruly barons of his own.