there were two magna cartas -- 9/08/15

Today's selection -- from Magna Carta by David Starkey. The Magna Carta of 1215 is famed for being "the greatest constitutional document of all times -- the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot" and the spiritual predecessor of such foundational documents as the the U.S. Constitution. But there were two Magna Cartas. The first was a radical document that was almost immediately rescinded. The second, which came a year later, was centrist document that was the product of compromise:

"The events of 1215 were a revolution. The baronial leaders were violent, radical and aimed at the overthrow of royal government. Magna Carta was both their manifesto and their instrument. If John had accepted the Charter, the powers of the Twenty-five would have turned him into a doge of Venice and England into an aristocratic republic. When he resisted, the baronial leaders went further and envisaged -- however temporarily -- a world without kings and a realm ruled by overtly republican forms.

"This of course is not the Magna Carta that is being presented to us in this, its 800th anniversary year. This Magna Carta is safe, domesticated, comforting. But it is the Magna Carta of the earliest contemporary account in the chronicle of Melrose Abbey:

a new state of things [has] begun in England; such a strange affair as had never before been heard; for the body wished to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king.

"The language is apocalyptic because the writer or his informant had seen 'a new heaven and a new earth' -- or at least a new Jerusalem being built at Runnymede in England's green and pleasant land.

"But of course the revolution failed; the republic died and the walls of the new Jerusalem crumbled and turned to dust. Magna Carta should have been forgotten with the rest. That it was not was due to very different circumstances and men of a very different stamp also.

Illustration of King John delivering Magna Carta to the Barons

"Chief among them was William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. It was he who, as regent for the young Henry III, took the decision to reissue the Charter within a few weeks of John's death. Marshal was centrist, courtier-like and conventional. He was the ultimate conservative: loyal, royalist and without a trace of radicalism. The reissued Charter reflected its author. Not only was chapter 61, which set up the revolutionary machinery of the Twenty-five, struck out in its entirety, so too were numerous other chapters that were deemed to be 'important yet doubtful'. In Marshal's world there was no room for 'doubtful' or difficult ideas, let alone dangerous ones.

"This is not a temperament that is much regarded nowadays -- even in political parties that affect to call themselves conservative. And yet it was Marshal who saved the Charter. He did so principally for straightforward reasons of expediency. His young charge was in desperate need of all the support that he could get and the reissued Charter, shorn of its most contentious chapters, was an obvious device to win over the waverers and the undecided to the cause of Henry III.

"This is not at all idealistic. It is not very lofty. But it is not reprehensible either. Must men always act idealistically or selflessly? Is there not something to be said for those who come up with a practical solution to a practical problem? Marshal's reissue of the Charter was just that. ...

"This, it seems to me, is a properly conservative attitude to reform. And it also passed another properly conservative test: it worked. The reissued Charter played a crucial part in safeguarding the throne of the young Henry III and in ensuring the survival of the Angevin dynasty itself. It became the prototype for the broader pattern of reform in England and it placed Magna Carta at the centre of that process of negotiation and careful compromise.

"But which Magna Carta? For, as we can now see, there are two. They are separated by only a year and they share much of their text in common. But they are fundamentally different documents. The Magna Carta of 1215 is radical and a product of revolution. The Magna Carta of 1216 is centrist and is the painstaking work of the political process. The former is abortive; the latter is the foundation of English political history."


David Starkey


Magna Carta: The Medieval Roots of Modern Politics


Hodder & Stoughton


Copyright David Starkey 2015


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