Magna Carta: the things you didn’t know

800 years ago, Magna Carta was signed an the reunited copies of the ancient document will go on show at The British Library. But what exactly did it say?

John sealing the Magna Carta by Frank Wood, 1925 Photo:

John sealing the Magna Carta by Frank Wood, 1925 Photo:

This will be the year of Magna Carta. It is a year rich in historical anniversaries, including those of the battles of Agincourt (1415) and Waterloo (1815). But it is the commemoration of King John’s great concession at Runnymede on June 15 1215 that should dominate our thoughts, as we consider the profound influence that the Great Charter has had on eight centuries of history in England, Britain and the English-speaking world.

The celebrations begin this year on February 3. For one day, the only four known copies of Magna Carta 1215 will be brought together for the first time, at the British Library, where they will be seen by the 1,215 people who have won their tickets in a public ballot. There will be plenty more Magna Carta pageantry during the rest of the year, including an exhibition, also at the British Library, a royal visit to Runnymede on the anniversary itself and many other smaller events in towns across the UK – Lincoln, Bury St Edmunds, Salisbury and more – who claim a historic connection with the Great Charter.

But what exactly is Magna Carta? Why was it granted? Does it really speak to the principles of democracy, liberty and human rights with which it is so often associated? And what is the purpose of the charter – if it has one – today? All of these questions are of critical importance as we celebrate eight centuries of Magna Carta, and look towards a ninth.

Magna Carta was a failed peace treaty. It was produced during a civil war between John and a coalition of his barons, known by various titles, including The Army of God and The Northerners.

The issues between these two groups were many and various – which is why Magna Carta is 4,000 words long and is now usually divided into 63 clauses. The grievances it addressed were not only of John’s making. They reached back at least two generations, into the reigns of John’s father, Henry II, and his brother Richard I, “the Lionheart”.

During the combined reigns of these first three Plantagenets, English government experienced deep changes. The power and wealth of the crown increased dramatically, particularly in relation to the power of the English barons.

For many people this had been quite good. Royal justice was more available than at any time before. It was easier to protect your land. By 12th-century standards, the realm had been peaceful, with only one major outbreak of civil war, in 1173-74. Until 1204 the Plantagenets ruled about a third of modern France, which meant that Henry II and Richard I were effectively absentees from their kingdom – so they tended not to interfere with baronial business.

JONES_Magna Carta.jpgNot everyone, however, was happy. The costs of defending a Plantagenet empire reaching from Scotland to the Pyrenees meant that English government was set up to extract money from the realm as efficiently as possible. This meant regular and high taxes. It also meant exploiting what we call the king’s feudal prerogatives. These were payments that the king claimed the right to demand from his barons when they inherited estates and titles, or when he wanted to raise an army, and so on.

At some points the costs were dizzying. Richard I’s involvement in the Third Crusade, after which he was taken prisoner and held for ransom, cost perhaps £200,000: roughly the equivalent of 10 years’ national income. (In the UK today the equivalent cost might be £6.5tn: Richard’s crusade would be like England paying for the entire recent war in Afghanistan twice in three years.) And that was only one expense. There were equally massive wars in France, rebellions to put down and the ordinary cost of government. So the Plantagenets were in chronic need of money and squeezed the country – particularly the barons – hard. That would have been bad enough – but in 1199, along came John. […]



(From The Telegraph, Dan Jones, 02.02.2015)

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