The History of an Idea: The Paradoxes of Magna Carta in its 800th Year

15th June 2015 officially marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, the document that Bishop Stubbs once referred to as being part of a “vanguard of liberty.” [1] Celebrations are underway across the country for this ‘Great Weekend’, including a major exhibition at the British Library and a plethora of new books on the charter and on King John. The University of York History Department’s own 2015 Aylmer lecture saw Professor Linda Colley (Shelby M. C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University and author of Acts and Union and Disunion, 2014) explore A changing Magna Carta: Past, present and future. One might beg the question: what exactly is the cause for popular interest in a relatively brief thirteenth-century charter? Why do we still celebrate it today, eight centuries following its creation (and, indeed, its hasty annulment)? What is clear is that there are many contradictions within the popular image of Magna Carta, so much so that the perceptions of its stance on liberty and eternal freedoms have come to outweigh interest in its actual contents.

Professor Colley’s fascinating lecture on 11th June laid out some of the most intriguing paradoxes at the heart of popular feeling for Magna Carta. On the one hand Magna Carta was celebrated annually right up until World War One; on the other, there has always been a pervasive sense of a general ignorance as to the document’s actual contents. Professor Colley quoted one nineteenth-century jurist as saying that Magna Carta “is on everybody’s lips, but in nobody’s hands.” Indeed a YouGov poll commissioned by the British Library in 2008 found that up to 45% of the British public are unaware of what Magna Carta is, let alone why many still celebrate it as a cornerstone for personal freedoms. [2] One conclusion that we – and, indeed, Professor Colley – might draw from this paradox is that Magna Carta is an idea, a document of “talismanic value” in modern minds rather than a text that helped to genuinely shape actual legislation. We might note that all but three of the clauses of the charter have been repealed by Parliament. Regardless of this fact the notion of Magna Carta as the foundation of constitutions worldwide, and as Britain’s actual constitution, lives on.

It is easy to talk in a figurative way about Magna Carta – its very name has become an abstract noun, influencing discussions on personal and political rights across the globe and becoming, in Professor Colley’s words, “a metaphor, a trademark for charters of liberty everywhere.” But what is Magna Carta, and what were the intentions behind its creation? For the uninitiated, Magna Carta (‘Great Charter’) is a series of 63 clauses of varying contents compelled from King John in the summer of 1215 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, as part of negotiations between the king and a group of rebel barons. The so-called ‘golden passage’ of Magna Carta is considered to be the most substantial portion:

“39. No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in anyway destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

  1. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.” [3]
King John signing Magna Carta

King John signing the Magna Carta at Runnymede on June 15, 1215

Through these clauses Magna Carta has been seen to establish the right to trial by jury. Nevertheless the large majority of the clauses are inherently time-bound, specific to their exact context rather than being designed to be long-lasting. Clause 33, for example, calls for “all kiddles [fishweirs] for the future [to] be removed altogether from Thames and Medway.”[4] Thus whilst some parts of the charter speak to an early desire to establish human rights, much of the rest references specific baronial concerns regarding privileges. This has led to a debate amongst historians as to the nature of the barons’ motivations: Stubbs and Maurice Powicke argued that the barons acted selflessly, aiming to produce a formative document for serious change; J.C. Holt and David Crouch have been more cynical, seeing Magna Carta not as an act of generosity but as one of political necessity for the barons. [5] Regardless of these debates, however, focus has remained throughout history on the forward-thinking political aspects of the charter.

American reactions towards Magna Carta perhaps best exemplify the mythologizing of the idea of the charter as the foundation of modern-day liberty. Only one of the remaining four original copies of the charter is in a suitable state to travel, and it regularly does; its visit to the Law Library of Congress in Washington last year is just the most recent of many trips to the states. The American people have been so consistently devoted to Magna Carta and all that it stands for that Lincoln’s original copy only narrowly avoided becoming a bargaining chip for America’s entry into the Second World War. [6] At the current Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition at the British Library two of the surviving 1215 charters are being displayed alongside US the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. [7] This is just one example of modern states connecting their own constitutions to Magna Carta, but is certainly the most famous and one of the most long-lasting. It is less the specificity than the general notions of Magna Carta that are being celebrated here.

Defining the line between perceptions and reality ultimately comes down to understanding the intentions behind the charter’s creation. Fundamentally Magna Carta sought to alter the established relationship between the monarch, his subjects, and the law. The twelfth clause’s insistence on the need for “general consent” and the fourteenth’s instructions for obtaining such consent from a group of summoned barons laid the foundations for a Parliament that could obstruct the king. Ultimately the king was made subject to the law, a fact that still holds water today (and the reason, perhaps, for such disquiet when our own Prime Minister failed to translate the document’s name). It also signified for the first time an awareness of a sense of common good, though an argument against this suggestion might utilise the contextual points in the language of the clauses to point out that ‘freemen’ was merely intended as a distinction from the many un-free men in thirteenth-century England.  Nevertheless Magna Carta can be seen to have been designed to create an ideal: despite being rooted in a very particular philosophy and context, its reference to granting rights “in perpetuity” displays some awareness on the part of Langton and the barons to setting a precedent. In an immediate sense they did. The notion of a united “kingdom” prevalent in Magna Carta was replicated and expanded upon in later encroachments upon the regal power of Henry III and Edward I.

It is easy to see a degree of confusion in many of the 800th anniversary celebrations. One might question, for instance, the notion of celebrating the sealing of Magna Carta with a royal procession featuring King John, as has occurred in Lincoln over the past few days. Certainly those radicals that have historically claimed Magna Carta as an icon of subversion might have something to say about such a connection.  Does the jubilation surrounding the tenets of freedom from oppressive powers for all men represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the charter’s clauses? It might certainly be an overstatement of the charter’s realistic achievements. Does this really matter? At some point in history –probably around the seventeenth century – Magna Carta became an idea quite separate from the reality of the text itself. By the Civil War period, as Holt has pointed out, Magna Carta was simplified and often misread for partisan purposes [8]. Recognition of the more time-bound clauses gradually faded, whilst many of the more long-standing clauses were repealed over time (it might even be argued that clauses 39 and 40 remain part of our legislation only tenuously in the wake of anti-terrorist laws). The veritable dying out of constitutional history in educational curriculums has seen it moved to the sidelines, and as such the charter has become a myth. Ultimately one would agree with W.L. Warren:

“…many who knew little and cared less about the content of the Charter have, in nearly all ages, invoked its name, and with good cause, for it meant more than it said.” [9]

Written by Laura Flannigan


[1] William Stubbs, Constitutional History of England Volume 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), 579.

[2] Caroline Lewis, “Half UK population doesn’t know what Magna Carta is,” Culture 24 online,, accessed 12th June 2015.

[3] 1215 Magna Carta, available in full online:

[4] Ibid

[5] James Holt, Magna Carta (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David Crouch, “Baronial Paranoia in King John’s Reign,” in Magna Carta and the England of King John ed. Janet S. Loengard (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010).

[6] Mark Brown, “How wartime Britain planned to give the US a copy of Magna Carta,” The Guardian, 11 March 2015,, accessed 12th June 2015.

[7] “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy,” British Library,–law-liberty-legacy, accessed 12th June 2015.

[8] Holt, Magna Carta

[9] W.L. Warren, King John (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1978), 240.