The “palladium of our liberties” would never have amounted to anything much without a whole succession of royal failures. Henry III, whose reign witnessed the first parliament; Charles I, whose defeat in the civil war put paid to Stuart dreams of absolutism; James II, whose flight into exile ensured the triumph of the Glorious Revolution: all played key roles in the evolution of our rights. No coincidence that the most celebrated of all the waymarks on the road to our freedom under the law, a charter enshrined as the very bedrock of the English constitution, should have been sealed by England’s most appalling king.
“Foul as it is,” wrote the 13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris, “hell itself is made more foul by the presence of John.” For eight centuries now, his reign and reputation have stood proof against all attempts at revisionism. John’s career was one long record of treachery, cruelty and cowardice. He betrayed his brother Richard I while the Lionheart was on crusade. He murdered his own nephew and thought nothing of starving women and children to death. He lost his family’s ancestral lands in France and returned from an attempt to recover them in 1214 with his tail between his legs. His response to this calamity was to impose an extortionate levy on the barons and knights of England. Provoked beyond endurance, a substantial number of them rebelled. By the summer of 1215, the insurgent barons had succeeded in backing John into a corner. In early June, they joined with the king’s negotiating team to hammer out an accord between the rival parties. The meeting place, as recorded by an attendant clerk, was “a meadow midway between Windsor and Staines, called Runnymede”. The disputes there were complex and protracted, and the agreement, by the time John finally brought himself to agree to it, ran to over 4,000 words. In due course, the continuous flow of its prose would end up subdivided into no fewer than 63 clauses. It was indeed a great charter: a “Magna Carta”.
Its provisions were varied and jumbled: due reflection of the broad array of factions involved. The Church, in the very first clause of the charter, was promised its freedom “in perpetuity”; the City of London had its own liberties guaranteed; the rights of widows received detailed protection. Fish weirs were banned from the Thames and Medway. Bridges, forest enclosures and measurements of ale: all were carefully regulated. Yet narrow in scope though many of the clauses were, Magna Carta deserves its fame. Even at its most parochial and legalistic, it was rarely concerned merely with the interests of the barons. The rights that it articulated were momentously open-ended. Clauses designed to rein in the specific depredations of John against the great men of his kingdom served to enshrine legal rights that would end up as the watchwords of English freedom. Clause 39, which remains to this day on the statute book, is perhaps the most enduring and influential statement of principle ever inscribed in a constitutional document. “No freeman is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way brought to ruin; nor will we go or send against him except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
Not that its significance was evident at first. John was hardly the man to be bound by any agreement, no matter how solemnly sworn. It did not take him long to denounce Magna Carta. One year later, though, he was dead and in November 1216 the charter was reissued for the very first time in a desperate but ultimately successful attempt to rally support for John’s son, the nine-year-old Henry III. From then on it would repeatedly be confirmed by a succession of kings – 33 times in all. That its provisions grew steadily more obscure and incomprehensible to those who could be bothered to read them did not prevent Magna Carta from blazing in the imaginations of the English as an assurance that everyone, even the monarch, was under the law.
Since the 17th century, it has repeatedly been reinterpreted and reinvented by a whole succession of ideologues. Whether on opponents of Stuart absolutism or on the Founding Fathers of the United States, on the Chartists or on the lawyers who drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its influence has been immense. Even today, in our cynical and sceptical age, its potency remains undimmed. That Magna Carta never once mentioned democracy, equality or mutual respect did not prevent David Cameron, only last year, from declaring that it did. The inaccuracies scarcely matter. Every country needs its myths. That is why, 800 years on from the meeting at Runnymede, the uselessness of King John and all that resulted from it richly merits celebration.
Tom Holland’s “Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar” will be published in September by Little, Brown