Magna Carta @ 800: A Visit to the British Library
Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John.
Today marks the eight hundredth anniversary of the signing (though contrary to popular belief it was not signed, but sealed, by King John) of Magna Carta, the ‘Great Charter’ that has gone down as one of the foundation stones of English (later British) liberalism. This foundation was both legal and, as we shall see, symbolic, and it is through a combination of these legacies that the charter has gained its present prestige.
Following King Henry II’s reign, the throne passed to John’s elder brother, Richard. While King Richard was on the Third Crusade, John had formed an alliance with King Philip II of France in an attempt to rule over Richard’s lands in France. His tumultuous decision making would become a hallmark of his reign. However in 1213, in a masterstroke of John’s, England became a vassal of the papacy. Thus when two years later John was forced to accept the Magna Carta it was rendered invalid within months by Pope Innocent III. His inability to subdue the barons was to prove his most expensive mistake, however; not just for him but for his successors. So why was John forced to accept the Magna Carta? The Angevin kings (the line that began with his father) ruled by a rather unexplained right and, more often than not, made controversial decisions. However, doing so incited the wrath of the barons, a factor not helped by John’s insistence on imposing increased taxes on the barons. A strenuous relationship then; one that would culminate in an ongoing war with the barons and eventually the Magna Carta (as an attempt at peace) on 15th June 1215.
The esteem in which the charter is held is evident in the variety and sheer amount of public commemorative activity taking place around the anniversary. An impressive range of public history events, including talks, exhibitions, guided walks, plays and musical performances, is being held throughout the UK and in some Commonwealth countries. The British media, meanwhile, is rife with Magna Carta references, with commentators and public figures evoking its popular image in support of all sorts of arguments, some only loosely related to the historical charter. All this activity offers insight into the shape of the dominant national narrative that has built up around Magna Carta over the centuries, which is in some ways very different from anything that the charter itself contained or represented.
The British Library in London is also taking part enthusiastically in the anniversary season, with a series of events aimed at raising public awareness of Magna Carta and its importance. The centrepiece of the Library’s commemorations is a six-month long exhibition outlining the background of the charter, as well as its legal, political and historical significance. The exhibition, entitled ‘Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy’, ties together all the most important strands of this national narrative surrounding the charter. As such, we thought that visiting it would be the perfect way to begin to understand this narrative – to understand, in short, where the British have decided that Magna Carta belongs in their island story.
The subtitle of the exhibition offered a very good starting point for this: ‘Law, Liberty, Legacy’ seemed a neat encapsulation of the way the organizers had chosen to present the charter and its role in the last eight centuries of British (and later global) history.
The ‘law’ theme was represented primarily in the opening area of the gallery, which devoted several large sections to exploring the legal precedent to and significance of the document. Areas one (‘King John: Rule and Rebellion’) and two (‘The Granting of Magna Carta’) presented an overview of the events leading up to the charter’s signing, with particular focus on the general unpopularity, and perceived incompetence, of King John, and the resulting uprising of the barons against him. Much was made of John’s reputation as a ‘notorious tyrant, who administered justice in an arbitrary way’; this, along with his raising of taxes, gave the impression of a ruler getting his just comeuppance at Runnymeade in 1215.
Magna Carta’s legacy is irrefutable. Its staying power in modern times has only been further extended by documents such as the Constitution of the United States (1787) and, more recently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The ‘legacy’ part of the exhibition is in area five and beyond. As we walked through it was difficult not to be overwhelmed by the legal and symbolic legacy that the Magna Carta has left. The role it played in Britain’s colonial empire was interesting; it was used as not only a justification for British expansion (to spread liberties) but by emigrants to preserve their rights while abroad.Muzaffar: The legacy of the Magna Carta surprised me and it was interesting to see all that it had influenced. The exhibition appears to concentrate more on the legacy of the Magna Carta rather than the document itself.
And the ‘liberty’ theme? As is probably clear by now, this was discernible as a constant thread running throughout the exhibition. From the ‘original’ charter, through its various reflections in the work of figures such as Coke and Penn, to its current form in the popular imagination, Magna Carta has been firmly associated with the preservation of freedom in the face of would-be governmental despotism.Simon: On the subject of the ‘original’ charter, one of the most interesting parts of the exhibition for me (particularly the first few areas) was the wealth of information on the various competing versions of Magna Carta that were produced around this time. Area three included a rather stylish infographic (of sorts) illustrating the differences between the different versions, with the clauses dropped from or added to later drafts represented as coloured spokes on a wheel. The effect was surprisingly psychedelic for an exhibition on medieval legal codes…
The content and layout of the exhibition suggested that the organizers broadly endorse this interpretation – while also leaving a little room to interrogate it. Their interesting and subtle conclusion, as presented in area nine (‘Magna Carta in the Modern Age’), seemed to be that the historical accuracy of the charter’s libertarian qualities is of only secondary importance. The area included a quote from Chief Justice Lord Bingham, who asserted that ‘the significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed that it said’.
This certainly fits with much of the media discussion surrounding the charter as the anniversary approached. As critics such as Owen Jones or historian Tom Holland have mentioned, Magna Carta’s provisions were obviously not as radically liberal, by our standards, as its reputation now suggests. Prime Minister David Cameron’s claim last year that the charter introduced such concepts as democracy, equality and ‘respect’ to the English constitution was demonstrably false.Muzaffar: This rings true for much of what happens in history. It is often the interpretation of events that result in their legacies.
Jones and Holland make the crucial point, however, that such inaccuracies simply do not matter. As we have seen, Magna Carta has gradually come to ‘blaze[…] in the imaginations of the English as an assurance that everyone, even the monarch, was under the law’. This association with fundamental civil liberties gave it immense importance as a rhetorical device in later centuries, used by reformists and revolutionaries alike to ‘give legitimacy to their cause’. More than anything else, it is this symbolic value that has determined the charter’s influence since 1215, and around which the national narrative has been constructed. Magna Carta, as Jones says, is ‘a striking example of useful myths’ – a myth that has helped mould the nation’s identity, and raise its self-esteem, for nearly eight hundred years.
Muzaffar’s Second Trip
Whilst I was taking a break (read: procrastinating) from essay writing at the British Library I stumbled upon a rather interesting piece on the Magna Carta. A project led by Cornelia Parker, it is an amazing piece of work that has captured a snapshot of the Magna Carta in time. In taking the Magna Carta’s Wikipedia page (from 15th June 2014) Cornelia, along with the 200 people that contributed to the making of the artwork, has preserved the on-going debate of the document as a 13 metres long embroidery.
The majority of the text has been sewn by prisoners as part of an enterprise that encourages needlework to ‘foster hope, discipline and self-esteem.’ As I was leaving to get back to work I caught a fleeting moment of a video where a gentleman who, as part of the scheme, had contributed to the embroidery. The gentleman comments on how he aligns with the idea of liberty that surrounds the Magna Carta. It was a moment that brought home the extent of the Magna Carta’s influence, especially today.
I would have loved to provided pictures but, as with the main exhibition, photography is prohibited. It is a good supplement to the main exhibition and is free to see (available until 24th July).
Final thoughts on Magna Carta?
Muzaffar: Regardless of how it came to be and the original intentions, the Magna Carta has had an influence throughout history that is matched by little else.
Simon: A fascinating document with an even more fascinating afterlife — it certainly seems as though Magna Carta deserves its place at the heart of British national identity. This exhibition did a decent job of explaining its complicated history, too; even though I only remember a tenth of what I saw there, that’s still countless times more than I knew before! Well worth a visit.
More details on the British Library’s ‘Law, Liberty, Legacy’ exhibition can be found on its website. The exhibition runs until 1 September, and is recommended to anyone who happens to be in London (and bored with the meagre distractions that Oxford Street can provide).