Magna Carta 1215: The Great Cornerstone in England’s Temple of Liberty?
Britain was not founded or created at any particular moment, nor was there any event which marked definitely its becoming a nation, such as the signing of a declaration of independence. Instead, the British have the Magna Carta. Before Magna Carta, there are a few memorable dates such as 55 BC and 1066 AD, along with a handful of notable kings such as Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror and Richard the Lionheart. These rulers seemed to do pretty much as they pleased. From 1215 onwards though, following King John placing his seal on the great charter which the barons presented to him, we know that we have been living in a nation where the rule of law is paramount. Even the monarch is bound by the law to respect the rights of his or her subjects.
Most of us think that we know the story of the Magna Carta, how the barons grew tired of King John’s arbitrary rule and the way in which he was riding roughshod over ancient liberties and oppressing the common people. They put together a set of principles, including habeus corpus, which guaranteed that from then on every person in the kingdom would have the right to a fair trial and nobody could be detained without a just cause. In fact if there is one thing most people know about Magna Carta, it is that it stops people being locked up without recourse to the courts. Isn’t that what habeus corpus is all about? That the Magna Carta was actually a reactionary document, specifically devised to deny ordinary people any rights and to reverse progressive changes made in the law some years earlier, sounds shocking and even absurd to modern ears.
Before going any further, it might be helpful to look at the popular image of the events at Runnymede 800 years ago, just to remind ourselves of what we think we know about the matter. In other words, before examining the historical fact, let us look first at the myth, as we have received it today. Our ideas about the Magna Carta are usually drawn not from historical or contemporary sources, but rather from a nineteenth-century reimagining of what took place at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. The version of Magna Carta with which we are most of us familiar might not inaptly be called a romantic narrative or, less charitably, a Victorian fairy story. The affection which the Victorians developed for Magna Carta, and which led to their creating an alternative version of reality, had two chief origins, one romantic and the other a desire to mask the brutal realpolitik of colonial exploitation. As the less attractive aspects of the Industrial Revolution, by-products such as urban slums and ugly factories with their chimneys belching forth smoke, became increasingly plain to see, there were attempts in nineteenth-century Britain to create an imaginary past.
This showed, to begin with, in a revival of Gothic architecture: new buildings such as railway stations and law courts were designed in a conscious effort to hark back to another age. Even provincial town halls were tricked out to look like cathedrals or fairy-tale castles. The Palace of Westminster in London, more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament, is a magnificent example of what became known as the Gothic Revival style of building.
The Palace of Westminster in London
The towers and pinnacles of this iconic building were deliberately designed to look archaic and centuries out of date. Later on, there was a craze for everything to do with the Middle Ages. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists was founded. They and their followers turned out paintings of an idealized medieval world, much of it based upon the legends of King Arthur and his court at Camelot. The Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, turned the medieval epic of Mallory’s Mort d’Arthur into verse and dedicated the Idylls of the King to Queen Victoria. She and her husband posed for paintings and statues in which they were depicted in fancy dress to represent historical figures from the medieval period.
Landseer, for example, painted them as the fourteenth-century monarchs Edward III and Queen Philippa. Illustration shows a sculpture of Victoria and Albert as medieval monarchs. The uncertainties of the Victorian Age found an antidote in the supposedly more pious and chivalrous era between the Norman Conquest and the Tudors. Life in those days was portrayed as being gentler and having more noble values than those of the counting house and wharf, rampant commercialism being blamed for many of the ills of nineteenth-century society. There was a yearning for a pastoral way of life, before industry had taken over and the cities of Britain expanded to bursting point and beyond. William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement fixed upon the fourteenth century as the epitome of this vanished golden age, designing wallpaper, furniture and textiles to fit in with this fantasy world.
A sculpture of Victoria and Albert
It was as part of this romantic movement that Magna Carta emerged as a talisman or touchstone which symbolized all that was good about England and, by extension, Britain. Instead of the preoccupation with the mercenary and mercantile world of trade which characterized Victorian Britain, the myth grew that there had once been a time when ideals of justice and concern for the rights of ordinary men and women had been the motivating force in the country’s history. Powerful men in those days had been prepared to go to war with the king to ensure that the liberty of his subjects was respected and that everybody was entitled to redress in the courts and protection from unjust imprisonment and so on. This version of events was enthusiastically taken up by artists and writers and we cannot do better than look at one or two examples from the time to see how the Magna Carta became known to everybody in nineteenth century Britain as the country’s supreme creation, which was destined to be Britain’s gift to the whole world.
Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome, is known today as a lighthearted comic novel about the misadventures of a group of middle-class men taking a short holiday by hiring a boat and rowing up the Thames from Kingston towards its source. Apart from the farcical anecdotes for which the book is famous, there are a number of descriptive passages about historical events, including the signing of the Magna Carta. Jerome’s take on what took place at Runnymede eight centuries ago encapsulates the myth at which we are looking. The barons are fierce protectors of the rights of the general populace and force King John to accede to their demands on behalf of the people of England. He is reluctant to do so, wishing to hang on to his autocratic rule: But the heart of John sinks before the stern faces of the English fighting men, and the arm of King John drops back onto his rein, and he dismounts and takes his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons follow in, with each mailed hand upon the sword-hilt, and the word is given to let go. Slowly, the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runnymede. Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Charta Island.
And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air and the great cornerstone of England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid. One almost imagines this seminal incident from English history being depicted in a Pre-Raphaelite painting, so vivid is the imagery. We turn now to a quintessentially English poet of roughly the same era to give his version of the meaning of Runnymede. Kipling’s Reeds at Runnymede was commissioned for C. L. R. Fletcher’s A History of England. This book was written for children, thus ensuring that the rising generation in Edwardian Britain would imbibe the Magna Carta myth in its purest and most distilled form. It would be tedious to quote this poem in its entirety, but a few extracts will give the flavour of the thing:
When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
They lumbered up to Runnymede,
At Runnymede, at Runnymede
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgement found,
And passed upon him by his peers,
Forget not after all these years,
The Charter Signed at Runnymede.
The marvellous and almost surreal notion of all those medieval barons ‘playing the game’, like boys in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, is an enchanting one! Illustration shows King John signing the Magna Carta. Of course, as any schoolboy knows, he actually placed his seal upon it, rather than signing his name. Magna Carta had of course been known to politicians and lawyers for centuries, but it was the Victorians who brought it to the forefront of the national consciousness, so that by the end of the nineteenth century, most people in the country had heard of it and were aware of its supposed significance. Throughout the twentieth century, this universal familiarity became entrenched, so that in 1959, when an episode of the radio comedy series Hancock’s Half Hour was broadcast, Tony Hancock’s immortal line, ‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?’, was seen as wildly amusing. The joke only works of course if everybody listening may be assumed to know at the very least that Magna Carta was a document and not a person.
King John signing the Magna Carta
There was a little more to the propagation of the idea of the Magna Carta as some kind of bill of rights than met the eye. It was not just a handful of artists and writers peddling the story of the sturdy barons standing up to a Magna Carta 1215 5 bad king who were responsible for the myth taking off in such a spectacular fashion that even now, almost 200 years later, we still cling to this weirdly distorted view of history. All the romanticizing of the medieval period and the fetishisation of the Magna Carta itself had a strong business end to it, that was used to justify imperialist expansion, not only by the British in India and Africa, but also by the United States as they spread their influence west across their own country and then over the Pacific Ocean. There is a great irony in the idea of the Magna Carta being exploited for the purposes of colonialism, particularly since the admiration accorded to it had been inextricably bound up in the vision of a chivalrous past, before the modern world became obsessed and preoccupied with industry and trade. Nevertheless, that is precisely what happened. Burgeoning industrial nations essentially require two things: sources of cheap raw materials and ever-expanding markets for their manufactured goods. Colonialism provided Britain with both. Palm oil, wood, rubber and gold were transported from Africa and in return the products of factories in Birmingham and Sheffield were exported and sold to colonists and natives.
It was upon the profit from these transactions that Britain’s prosperity during Queen Victoria’s reign was founded. Put like this, colonialism sounds, as indeed it was, like the systematic exploitation of the weak and powerless by the strong and unscrupulous. This was an unpalatable view for the respectable Victorians – few of us wish to see ourselves as tyrants and oppressors. So it was that the myth of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ came into being, the dishonest claim that occupying and looting the lands of others was some kind of philanthropic enterprise. In both Britain and America, a soothing fiction was devised to assuage the consciences of those who would otherwise baulk at theft and the expropriation of property on an industrial scale. It was to the Magna Carta that those responsible for this self-delusion turned. The thesis advanced on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean was that white people, especially the British and Americans, had somehow acquired a sacred mission to bring light and the benefits of civilization to those whose skin was darker or more sallow than the average European.
2015 Two Pound Coin – 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta
In America, this fraud went by the name of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and it was first outlined by the journalist John L. Sullivan in 1845 when he wrote of ‘Our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us’. In short, the ideals of Magna Carta, that is to say democracy and the rule of law, gave America carte blanche to seize any territory they wished to occupy, on the grounds that their own political and social system was manifestly or obviously better than any which might be encountered during this expansion west. Later on in the nineteenth century, this drive west continued across the Pacific until America was imposing its ideals of liberty on nations such as the Philippines, which lay on the edge of the South China Sea.
The American acquisition of the Philippines in 1898, following the Spanish-American War, prompted Rudyard Kipling to write a poem which endorsed the American attitude and also, by implication, that of the British as they forced their way south into Africa. The name of this poem, The White Man’s Burden, has become notorious as summing up all that was wrongheaded about the Victorian world-view. Dated 1899 and containing a dedication to, ‘The United States and the Philippine Islands’, it begins:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ needs
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples
Half devil and half child.
Two things immediately strike us when reading this opening verse (there are a further six, with which I shall not burden the reader). The first is the overt claim that colonization, specifically that being undertaken by America at that time but by implication also Britain’s similar actions, is undertaken for the benefit of the indigenous inhabitants of whichever land is so favoured. Talk of the ‘burden’, along with references to ‘exile’, ‘serving’ and ‘heavy harness’ make this perfectly clear. The aim of the enterprise is to raise up those who are less civilized than Britain and America and teach them to live by our values. What are these values? Why, they are none other than those that we imagine to be found in the Magna Carta; individual liberty, freedom of speech, trial by jury and so forth.
To be continued…
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