The Magna Carta was a legal document signed in Great Britain in the year 1215. This sample history essay explores the Magna Carta, its context, and its legacy in greater depth. The essay will be structured into four parts:
- The political context of Great Britain during the relevant time period
- The document known as Magna Carta
- The relationship between the Magna Carta and subsequent documents within other democratic societies
- The extent to which time and history have tended to distort the actual contemporary significance of the Magna Carta
The Magna Carta is one of the most important legal documents of the world. Breay and Harrison have written the following regarding this document:
Originally issued by King John of England (r.1199-1216) as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. (paragraph 1)
The document was originally intended as a kind of peace treaty to ensure free will and the responsibility of the citizens was protected: various barons within Great Britain were engaged in rebellious activities against the king, and the king agreed to the Magna Carta as a way of attempting to quell these activities. This ultimately proved to be a failure: in general, the rebellions continued, and the authority of the king was undermined over time. However, the principles that were embedded within the Magna Carta proved not only to capture the imaginations of people for the long time to come, they also proved to be adaptable beyond their immediate political purposes.
Divine sovereign or royal citizen
A word is perhaps in order here regarding the idea that the Magna Carta actually made the king subject to the law. In almost all historical monarchies, there existed some form of the doctrine of sovereignty by divine right. This is what Breay and Harrison have said about this matter:
The Divine Right of Kings is a political and religious doctrine of royal absolutism. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm, including the church. (paragraph 3)
In short, the king would be above the law, because he is the one who makes the law, and the concept of law itself would have no meaning without his own absolute sovereignty. In contrast, the Magna Carta stated that the king himself is subject to the law—that is, that there is in fact an earthly authority to which he must answer, just like any other ordinary human being. Politics in Europe changed as this marked a revolution and caused other nations o question sovereign powers.
This paradigm shift is fundamental to the premises of any democratic society. Within a democratic society, it is assumed that the power of sovereignty resides not with God but rather with the people as a whole; and as such, the people as a whole are answerable to the laws that they create together. One implication is that leaders and politicians are not above or beyond the law; rather, they belong to the people, and as part of the people, they are answerable to the laws of the people.
Again, though, it is important to understand the basically pragmatic as opposed to ideological gist of the Magna Carta. King John was confronted with widespread rebellion from the barons; and in response to this, he agreed to the Magna Carta, as a means of protecting his own sovereignty and power. However, part of the compromise of the Magna Carta was that the king must in fact answer to the laws, just like everyone else. The ideological implications inherent in this statement may not have been obvious at the time, but they developed significantly over time, as will be clearly seen below.
The Magna Carta
Regarding the document of the Magna Carta itself, Lepore has written the following:
Magna Carta is written in Latin. The King and the barons spoke French. . . . The peasants, who were illiterate, spoke English. Most of the charter concerns feudal financial arrangements . . . , obsolete measures and descriptions (wapentakes and wainages), and obscure instruments for the seizure of inheritance and estates. (paragraph 4)
At one level at least, then, the Magna Carta must be understood as essentially a legal document; and as such, much of its salience and relevance is restricted by the specific context and time within which it was written. Much of the Magna Carta would likely be wholly interesting to present-day readers, due to the simple reason that it addresses issues and circumstances that would have only been relevant or even made sense to the actual people who were living in Great Britain during the thirteenth century.
Magna Cara and British Constitution
Nevertheless, at least some have argued that the Magna Carta influenced the political philosophy behind the modern British constitution, even if only rather vaguely and at the level of principle. As Breay and Harrison have indicated:
“Although nearly a half of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within ten years, and almost all the clauses have been repealed in modern times, Magna Carta remains a cornerstone of the British constitution” (paragraph 1).
There would perhaps be little justification for such an assessment on the basis of a close examination of the text of the Magna Carta itself. Among other things, the modern concept of everyone being answerable to the law is premised on a concept of inherent natural right, and not on a concept of a subjective promise made by a given king. Nevertheless, what commentators like Breay and Harrison probably mean to suggest is that the Magna Carta does in fact contain, at least in embryonic form, the first stirrings of the democratic sensibility within Great Britain and the first limitations on the ethos of royal absolutism.
In retrospect, the Magna Carta has been widely hailed by many as a highly liberatory document. This is particularly the case within the United States. Turner, for example, has suggested:
“The Charter’s importance was seen differently across the Atlantic. As the Great Charter’s relevance receded in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, it remained fundamental for the new nation growing in North America.Today, Magna Carta would seem to enjoy greater prestige in the United States than in the United Kingdom” (paragraph 12).
There is, of course, some irony inherent in this state of affairs. However, it would seem that for the American political thinkers, the Magna Carta comes across as an early precursor of early America’s own foundational documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
It is easy to see why this may be the case. Here, for example, is part of the opening passage of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. (paragraph 2)
The Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence
If the Magna Carta is interpreted in terms of the basic doctrine that even the king is answerable to the law, then it is easy to find a genealogical link between the Magna Carta on the one hand and the Declaration of Independence on the other: what the former perhaps only implies (but implies all the same), the latter declares with full directness. Likewise, it would also be easy to trace a connection between the Bill of Rights and provisions within the Magna Carta that stated that all people have a right to a fair trial, and that the king cannot just put someone in jail on the basis of his own whim.
Nevertheless, the important point must be born in mind that ideologically speaking, the Magna Carta and the American documents mentioned above are worlds apart. As famed revolutionary philosopher John Locke and supporter of divine sovereignty pointed out, the Magna Carta implied that the king was making a concession, out of his own free will and in response to political circumstance, and not because of any kind of compelling metaphysical necessity.
The Declaration of Independence, on the other hand, makes it clear that such rights were never the King’s to give in the first place, and that those rights immediately and inalienable belonged to the people simply by virtue of them being the people. In other words, whereas the Magna Carta is a pragmatic legal document, the Declaration of Independence is an actual ideological manifesto. This leads us to a consideration of the potential distortions that can be introduced into the interpretation of such documents over the course of time.
History and distortion of the Magna Carta
Some commentators have suggested that the significance of the Magna Carta has been overrated; and the actual text of the document would seem to warrant such a conclusion. As The Economist has suggested:
There was not much reason, at the time, to suspect that the document would make history. It was not a revolutionary idea for the king to issue a charter promising to play by certain rules. Henry I, William the Conqueror’s son, had published the Charter of Liberties when he came to the throne in 1100, to persuade the barons that he would behave more reasonably than his horrible brother William Rufus had done. (paragraph 8)
In other words, at the time, the Magna Carta could not have been seen as setting any kind of unusual precedent. And again, much of the document is quite obsolete from the perspective of present-day study. The reason that the document has gained historical fame is that it contained the germs of certain principles of modern democracy. The important point here, though, is that the document did not in fact intentionally mean to contain them.
Magna Carta downplayed
In this context, the suggestion can perhaps be made that the significance of the Magna Carta is perhaps more of a myth than it is literal. The main idea is that a long time ago, a group of people (even though they were aristocrats and not common folk) managed to combine their power in order to force to king that even he was answerable to the law of the land. This is true, in a way, although it neglects all historical and political context, as well as the fact this is not quite the interpretation that the contemporary people of thirteenth-century England themselves would have given the event.
The Magna Carta primarily became famous, then, due to the resonances, it sparked within the imaginations of later democratic political thinkers, and not on the basis of the actual text itself or its immediate pragmatic effects. However, perhaps this is just as legitimate a reason as any for a text to become famous, insofar as democracy itself is nothing other than a project of the collective imagination.
In summary, the present essay has discussed the Magna Carta in some depth. A key point that has been made here is that the actual historical and political record suggests that the document was not considered anywhere near as revolutionary in contemporary times as it later came to be seen. At the time, it was simply a peace treaty issued by a king in trouble, as a pragmatic tactic to keep hold of his own power; it was not meant as an ideological declaration of the rights of man. However, when the time came later for people, especially in the United States, to actually make an ideological declaration of the rights of man, they found inspiration and precedent in certain aspects of the Magna Carta. There is nothing wrong with this, and perhaps the Magna Carta itself should feel honored for having been able to serve this purpose.
Breay, Clair, and Julian Harrison. “Magna Carta: An Introduction.” British Library, n.d. Web. 26 May 2016. http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-an-introduction.
The Economist. “The Uses of History.” 20 Dec. 2014. Web. 26 May 2016. http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21636510-how-did-failed-treaty-between-medieval-combatants-come-be-seen-foundation.
Lepore, Jill. “The Rule of History.” New Yorker. 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 26 May 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/20/the-rule-of-history.
Pelerin, Monty. “The Divine Right of Government.” American Thinker. 18 Aug. 2010. Web. 26 May 2016. http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2010/08/the_divine_right_of_government.html.
Turner, Ralph V. “The Meaning of Magna Carta Since 1215.” History Today. Sep. 2003. Web. 26 May 2016. http://www.historytoday.com/ralph-v-turner/meaning-magna-carta-1215.
United States. “Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.” Avalon Project, n.d. Web. 26 May 2016. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/declare.asp.