Post-classical history

Chapter 6
The charter as totem and as artefact

In the struggles between Parliament and the Stuart kings after 1600, Magna Carta played a distinguished part. In the hands of lawyers such as Sir Edward Coke and John Hampden its chief role was to serve as an embodiment of an ‘Ancient Constitution’ imperilled by the Stuart drive towards absolutism. In the 12th and 13th centuries, kings had claimed not so much to make new laws as to confirm the old, so that the coronation charter of Henry I claimed merely to restate the laws of Edward the Confessor. In the same way, to the lawyers of the 17th century the idea of the law as something ancient and immutable, tampered with only at the nation’s peril, was central to the defence of the rights of subjects against the king. Coke implied that aspects of the ancient constitution, not least Parliament itself, were as old as King Arthur, perhaps as old as the city of Troy from which Arthur’s forebears had supposedly fled to England. This was nonsense. It nonetheless threw a spotlight on Magna Carta as an embodiment of good old law, hallowed by time yet now endangered.

As in many situations in which historical records are placed at the service of lawyers, there was considerable tension here between fact and interpretation. No-one in the 17th century had a proper understanding of Magna Carta’s history. Many depended upon the texts transmitted by the chroniclers of St Albans, in which the 1215 and 1225 charters were hopelessly confused. Lawyers used the 1225 text whilst supposing that they dealt with a charter granted by John. The fact that Magna Carta itself had undergone a series of transformations between 1215 and 1225 was, to say the least, inconvenient to any argument that the constitution was of its nature unchanging and unalterable. John’s chief crime, in the eyes of Shakespeare, as of most English historians, was his craven surrender of England to the pope. Magna Carta, although supported by Stephen Langton, a cardinal of the Roman Church, and subsequently preserved by popes and papal legates, was presented to the 17th century as a Protestant manifesto: a defence of the religious as well as the ‘feudal’ liberties of freeborn Englishmen.

Nonetheless, the idea of a charter of liberties, embodying the subject’s rights against the sovereign, took deep root. It underlies not only the various parliamentary experiments to impeach the king’s ministers and to produce ‘remonstrances’ against bad government, but the chartered privileges which kings themselves continued to grant, not least to the fledgling American colonies. Coke played a part in drafting the first charter of the Virginia Company in 1606, promising colonists ‘all liberties, franchises and immunities … as if they had been abiding and born within this our realm of England’. The liberties of Englishmen were similarly guaranteed in the charters of Massachusetts (1629), Maryland (1632), Connecticut (1662), Rhode Island and Carolina (both 1663), and Georgia (1732). In this way, and by grace of precisely those Stuart kings, James I and Charles I, who were elsewhere accused of suborning the ancient constitution, Magna Carta and the principles of English liberty were exported across the north Atlantic just as previously they had been exported to Ireland and Normandy.

It was not only the parliamentary opposition but the king himself who appealed to ancient law and privilege. The debates over Ship Money in the 1630s, in which Magna Carta was cited, were inspired by Charles I’s revival of a number of ‘feudal’ taxes andobligations. In just this way, Charles sought to reassert rights over the royal forests which in times past had been allowed to lapse. Magna Carta was cited during the impeachment of the king’s ministers, Strafford in 1641 and Laud in 1645. It supplied a model for the Grand Remonstrance against royal government in 1641. In wider terms, there are obvious parallels to be drawn between the armed uprising of the peers and parliamentarians in the 1640s and that of the barons in the 1170s or in 1215. As on both of those previous occasions, fear was by no means the least significant of policy-makers. It was fear of King John in 1212 that led his barons to plot assassination. It was fear of Charles I that in 1649 led to his beheading. Not everyone agreed the precise significance of Magna Carta. Indeed, as we have seen, as a guide to lawyers or the devisers of law, there was much about Magna Carta that was far too vague or anachronistic for present use. Nonetheless, in the 1680s, as in the 1640s, when England rose against a Stuart king and expelled the hapless James II, it was Magna Carta that was cited as a model for the Bill of Rights (1689), an ‘Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown’.

This reference to ‘rights’ is itself significant and reflects a notable change in thinking. Against the early Stuarts, Magna Carta was cited as an embodiment of the ‘Ancient Constitution’, conceived of as something historically tangible: a brake applied by the past to present tendencies within the law. The more, however, that historians searched for that shaggiest of beasts, the ancient and immutable constitution, the less substantial its carcass appeared to be. Coke’s successors found themselves not so much in a liberal Elysium of natural laws and freedoms as in some terrible forerunner of Jurassic Park, excavating the remains of a still-breathing and distinctly carnivorous monster: the absolute sovereignty of the king. As early as the 1620s, the greatest of the Stuart historians, Henry Spelman, had come to realize that the ‘parliaments’ which first appeared in 13th-century sources were baronial affairs, meetings of lords rather than ‘Commons’.

Spelman’s discoveries here were not published until the 1660s, by which time William Prynne had toiled in the archives to prove that no summons to county and borough representatives was known earlier than 1265. It was left to the irascible Cambridge medic Robert Brady, writing in the 1670s, to assert not only that the ‘councils’ of the centuries on either side of the Norman Conquest were baronial affairs, attended principally by bishops, earls, and barons, but that the ‘Commons’ had no real existence before the reign of Edward I. For the first seventy years of its recorded existence, Parliament had no proper tradition of ‘elected’ members, no properly established body equivalent to the later House of Commons, and few functions other than to assent to and lend public authority to decisions already reached by the king. Magna Carta was in essence no more than a royal charter, an exercise of the sovereign’s grace. Parliament, once regarded as Magna Carta’s coadjutor, was likewise a king’s invention, in its earliest years a mere theatre for the display of royal magnanimity.

With Parliament itself now unmasked as a royal bastard, the past no longer applied any sure brake upon the king’s sovereignty. Moreover, from the 1680s, the threat of tyranny increasingly came not from a monarchy weakened by successive rebellions and revolutions, but from Parliament’s own claims to sovereign privilege. Arguments more effective than mere antiquity had to be devised to protect the liberties of Englishmen. Oliver Cromwell, chief architect of the most violent of the 17th-century revolutions, informed as Lord Protector that he was acting contrary to Magna Carta, is said to have replied that ‘their Magna Farta should not control his actions’. Gerard Winstanley, most radical of the reformers, perceived as early as the 1640s that Magna Carta was no more than a royal act of grace, defending the rights of only a small minority of property-holders. Into the position previously occupied by the ancient constitution, there now stepped the idea of ‘natural law’: fundamental legal principles transcending mere historical circumstance. In fact, there was little new here. We have found, as early as King John’s reign, the appeal both to ‘necessity’ and to ‘reason’ as fundamental principles underlying the negotiation of Magna Carta. Both terms, ‘necessity’ and ‘reason’, were germane to the 17th and 18th centuries, albeit now to a large extent divorced from the scriptural or theological imperatives that had once been assumed to govern their operation. The rights to which theorists such as John Locke aspired, and ultimately theRights of Man (1791) that Tom Paine declared should supercede any feudal relic such as Magna Carta, were not that far removed from the ‘necessities’ or ‘reason’ with which 13th-century theorists had sought to control the otherwise irrational propensities of kingship.

All of this should have consigned Magna Carta to oblivion. It did not. Exhibiting that fondness for the homespun which is an abiding feature of English law, those who in the 18th century attempted to challenge Parliament, for example by resisting arrest for so-called ‘seditious libels’, did so with Magna Carta clutched firmly in their hands. Almost literally so in the case of Arthur Beardmore in 1762 and Sir Francis Burdett in 1810, both of whom contrived, at the times of their arrest, to be found teaching Magna Carta to their sons. Quite what these boys made of their lessons is not recorded, but the images of them circulated via cheap prints gave a powerful impression of Magna Carta as something akin to holy writ: a ‘bible’ of liberty in an age of godless libertines.

In the debates over the American colonies, stirred up by Parliament’s claims to tax the colonists, Edmund Burke demanded that settlers in America have the same liberties as Englishmen and therefore ‘sit down … to the feast of Magna Charta’. The principle of ‘No taxation without representation’ itself could claim roots in Magna Carta, clause 14, with its demand for ‘common counsel’ before tax was granted. In 1770, there were calls for a committee of twenty-five barons to sit in judgment upon King George III. In the following year, we find the first of many proposals that 15 June, the anniversary of Magna Carta, be set aside as ‘a day of public thanksgiving, festivity and joy’.


7. Arthur Beardmore teaching Magna Carta to his son

For those, on the other side of the debate, who sought to assert the sovereignty not of the people but of king or Parliament, Magna Carta remained equally useful. Indeed, it was Sir William Blackstone’s attempt to justify parliamentary sovereignty on the basis of‘necessity’ (the need for a sovereign power to keep all competing authorities in check) that first led him to Magna Carta. It was Blackstone’s edition of 1759 that for the first time drew a proper distinction between Magna Carta 1215 and the reissue of 1225, the text generally cited in law. Given the ensuing revolutions in America and France, a fear emerged that, however ‘natural’ they might be, the ‘Rights of Man’ threatened to ride roughshod over both reason and tradition. Those seeking to protect society against chaos argued that repression was itself a ‘necessity’ to preserve the constitution and ancient law against furious and desperate men.Meanwhile, Magna Carta entered the debates over reform of the British Parliament.

By this time, it is very doubtful whether even its keenest advocates had read it or knew any of its terms, beyond perhaps the general defence of lawful judgment in clauses 39 and 40. Rather like those workers of the industrial north who in the 1820s demanded ‘Universal Suffrage’ on the understanding that this meant that if one person suffered then so should everyone else, citation of Magna Carta tended to be crude and anachronistic. Thomas Macaulay, England’s greatest historian and an active Whig politician, referred in the reform debates of the early 1830s to the Reform Bill as ‘a greater charter of the liberties of England’, deliberately placing it in succession to the charter of 1215. In the same way, the ‘People’s Charter’ of the 1830s and 1840s, the object for which the ‘Chartists’ struggled, was presented as a latter-day version of the settlement agreed at Runnymede.

In the American courts, Magna Carta continued to be cited as the inheritance of a legal system itself in part derived from English common law. Even on the European Continent, gripped by Anglomania as a result of Wellington’s victories, keen to discover the recipe for England’s avoidance of revolutionary bloodshed, Magna Carta (in French ‘La Grande Charte’), was not forgotten. France acquired a ‘Charter’ as a result of the restoration of Louis XVIII in 1814, with deliberate echoes of the limitations that Magna Carta had placed upon royal excess. Central to political debates under the Bourbon monarchy, it was revised as a result of the French revolution of 1830, and inspired the adoption of a similar ‘Charte Constitutionelle’ for the new kingdom of Belgium, itself one of the outcomes of the chaos of 1830. At the same time, the principal scholarly institution in France established to study and catalogue the evidence of the medieval past was named the École des Chartes (‘The Charters School’), permanently established in Paris in 1829, and still one of the French grandes écoles, responsible for the education of archivists and librarians.

The irony is that these homages to Magna Carta were paid at almost precisely the time that the charter itself began to fade from law into history. Two processes were crucial here. The first was law reform. Since the 17th century, it had been apparent that English law was a tangled thicket of statute and precedent. Successive statutes or acts of Parliament had altered or superceded earlier legislation without any attempt to repeal or codify the pre-existing laws thus rendered obsolete. There was no official statute book, merely a series of semi-official collections circulating amongst lawyers, claiming varying degrees of reliability or comprehensiveness. There was nothing especially English about this chaos. Save for the popes, who had sponsored digests of canon law since the 12th century, and for Sicily where there were attempts at codification in the 1220s, few European states could claim that their laws were properly published, let alone understood. Despite precocious moves by the authorities of Bavaria (1756) and Prussia (1794), it was the French Revolution that brought fundamental change, setting France on the road to the standardization of law.

Not until 1810, and even then only as a result of competition with the French Code Napoléon of 1804, was there an official attempt to publish the laws of England. The nine vast folios of these Statutes of the Realm began, naturally enough, with Magna Carta 1215. They also revealed the degree to which the laws of England were inconsistent, self-contradictory, riddled with textual confusions, and weighed down with medieved anachronisms. Beginning in the 1820s, and ironically enough spurred on by the success of Napoleon, England’s old enemy, in imposing order upon the laws of France, attempts were made to codify English criminal law, where some of the worst abuses lay. As law-makers strained to grasp the realities of the modern industrial state, a more general reform of the law, including repeal of redundant legislation, became an urgent necessity.

A second great spur to change came from a new historical understanding. It is no coincidence that this change occurred at precisely the same time that scientists and textual critics began to question whether the Bible and other religious texts could any longer be accepted as history rather than as metaphor. Neither the laws of old England nor those revealed by the Bible, it now came to be realized, were necessarily unalterable. As with codification, much of this new thinking was imported from France and Germany, whose scholars were already insisting that the documentary sources for the past be properly published and contextualized. Thanks to a government-sponsored Record Commission, in the 1830s the chancery rolls of John’s reign began to appear in full and remarkably accurate editions. With their thousands of individual writs and charters, they opened up new ‘scientific’ perspectives on the birth of Magna Carta.

Even so, the real leap forwards in legal history came from quite another source. Its chief herald was paradoxically the most old-fashioned of ‘literary’ historians, Thomas Macaulay, author both of a magnificently biased History of England and, as presiding law officer in India from 1834 to 1838, of proposals for the reform of Indian criminal law. Macaulay’s penal code was written in haste, provoked by the realization that the old East India Company (itself established in 1600 by royal charter) could no longer govern one hundred million subjects using a hotch-potch of laws compounded from regional custom, British parliamentary statute, and Islamic or Hindu religious teachings.

Its success nonetheless proved that laws as ancient and complex as those of India could be reformed and codified. It also suggested that law itself was something closely linked both to history and to social organization (what more modern writers would term ‘sociology’ or ‘social anthropology’). These lessons were taken up by Sir Henry Maine, whose Ancient Law (1861) suggested that law and society developed ‘from status to contract’ and that law itself was not eternal but man-made, subject to precisely those evolutionary twists of fortune that Charles Darwin had already applied to biology and that were now seen to determine the march of political, religious, and social history. Maine himself was a distinguished successor to Macaulay in the administration of the Indian legal system. Ireland, Europe, and the North American continent were already deeply implicated in the history of Magna Carta. India can now be added to this list, assisting the combination of the twin imperatives of law reform and the investigation of the role of past laws into a distinct scholarly subdiscipline, the ‘history of law’.

Previous generations had no more dared tamper with Magna Carta than they would have risked altering the text of the Book of Genesis. When it was proposed in the 1660s to move the meeting of the court known as ‘The Bench’ away from the draughty part of Westminster Hall where it had traditionally met, Chief Justice Bridgman argued, in accordance with an absurdly literal interpretation of Magna Carta, clause 17, that it would be a violation of the charter to move it even ‘the distance of an inch’. By the 1830s, efficiency and utility rather than dignity or divine revelation had become the watchwords of the law. Efficiency and utility can indeed be considered the 19th-century equivalents to the old concepts of reason and necessity. Beginning in 1828 with a tentative repeal of clause 36 (clause 26 of the 1225 Magna Carta, on payments for writs), large chunks of Magna Carta began to be chipped away from the statute book. Seventeen of the thirty-seven clauses of the 1225 Magna Carta were repealed in 1863, chiefly relating to ‘feudal’ incidents. Between 1879 and 1892, a further five clauses disappeared. Clause 18 (clause 7 of the 1225 Magna Carta) was removed in 1925, and clause 26 (clause 18 of the 1225 charter, on debts and testamentary bequests) in 1947. The clauses relating to amercements and fines owed to the king, first heard of as long ago as 1100, in Henry I’s coronation charter, enshrined in clauses 20–22 of the 1215 Magna Carta (clause 14 of the 1225 charter), were repealed in 1966. Attempts to repeal the remaining eight clauses then stalled, partly as a result of fears that the entire substructure of English law should not be scraped entirely clean. The constitution should retain not just its efficient but at least some of its more dignified parts. As a result, three and a half clauses (clauses 1, 13, 39, and 40, represented by clauses 1, 9, 29, and part of 37 of the 1225 charter) still remain in English law: barnacles on the great ship of state, of questionable utility save as reminders of how long ago the ship’s timbers were first sized and hammered.

Magna Carta thus metamorphized from legislation into historical artefact. Yet its remarkable talent for survival ensures that it continues to make headlines. Together with the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, and the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, it still constitutes a regular point on the tourist itinerary of London, preserved behind bullet-proof glass in its hermetically sealed capsule in the British Library. Even here, there are surprises. Tourists and the general public often express bewilderment as to why, if the original Magna Carta is preserved in London, they can also view it in Oxford, Salisbury, or Lincoln; in Durham or Hereford, even in Washington or Canberra. This leads us to a topic that still excites confusion. Was there ever an ‘original’ Magna Carta: the absolutely first version of the settlement, sealed in person by King John? What survive today are the official issues, four of them from the forty or so that must have been written in 1215, and all told twenty-three examples of the issues of 1215, 1216, 1217, 1225, 1297, and 1300. All of these deserve to rank as ‘original’ Magna Cartas, in the sense that they were all produced in the royal chancery under official supervision.

If there was ever an absolutely ‘first’ Magna Carta sealed at Runnymede, then it probably vanished long ago. It is possible that a version (preserved today only in a 14th-century copy in the so-called ‘Red Book of the Exchequer’), in which Magna Carta is recited by Stephen Langton, the pope’s chief envoy and other English and Irish bishops, represents the closest that we will ever come to this ‘master’ copy.

None of this has deterred the search for an ‘original’ original. As recently as 1924, for example, it was suggested (in an otherwise sober scholarly article) that slits pierced in the bottom of one of the 1215 Magna Cartas now housed in the British Library were made by King John stabbing the parchment with his dagger: ‘the visible evidence of his fury with the barons’. They are in fact nothing of the kind, but traces of the bookbinder’s knife, employed when the charter was bound into hard covers back in the 17th century. The desire for direct contact with the past remains a potent modern equivalent to the medieval seeking out of relics and saints’ bones as a means of accessing the sacred or charismatic. Of all the documents associated with Magna Carta displayed today, only a few will carry us in a direct, physical sense back to Runnymede and 1215. These were already prized and eagerly collected as long ago as the 17th century, and perhaps long before that. They include the ‘Articles of the Barons’ (a sealed draft of the eventual treaty, almost certainly produced at Runnymede prior to the final rearrangements and revisions that produced Magna Carta on 15 June). Archbishop Langton seems to have deposited these in his archive at Lambeth Palace. There they remained until the impeachment of Archbishop Laud, from whose papers they were looted. By the 1680s, they were in the possession of Bishop Burnett of Salisbury (who believed them to be Magna Carta itself). They are today in the British Library in London. Also in the British Library, though much less well known, is a short parchment booklet including copies of the coronation charters of Henry I, Stephen, and Henry II, written both in Latin and in Anglo-Norman translations. This too may have been amongst Langton’s baggage at Runnymede.

As early as the 1620s, thanks in no small part to the prominence afforded it by the lawyers, Magna Carta was a keenly sought-after trophy. The greatest of the Stuart manuscript collectors, Sir Robert Cotton, forming his library from the detritus of the dissolved medieval monasteries, came into possession of two ‘originals’ of the 1215 Magna Carta. One of them, ultimate source unknown, he acquired from a London barrister in 1629. It is of particular significance because it seems to represent a half-way house between draft and finished charter, with various clauses and amendments inserted at its foot, apparently introduced only at a late stage in negotiation. The other was part of a great haul of treasures looted by Sir Edward Dering, an east Kent grandee who gained access to the archives of both Canterbury Cathedral and Dover Castle. Dering’s ‘original’ 1215 Magna Carta, sent to Cotton in 1630, probably came from Dover. In 1731, it was badly damaged by fire. Its seal was reduced to a shapeless lump, and although a facsimile was printed with most of the lettering still visible, the text itself has since faded to blank illegibility. It was the facsimile of 1733 that served as the basis for Blackstone’s printed text of 1759: the first proper attempt to distinguish between the clauses of the 1215 and 1225 charters. Both of Cotton’s Magna Cartas have since entered the national collections, first of the British Museum, subsequently of the British Library.

A third ‘original’, rumoured in the 18th century to have been preserved at Salisbury Cathedral, was only rediscovered there c. 1812. It presents problems because it is written in a script that seems not to be that of any official chancery scribe. A fourth and final original was brought to light at Lincoln Cathedral, printed in facsimile in the Statutes of the Realm in 1810, and henceforth used as the basis for most of the editions of Magna Carta published over the past two centuries. Its particular quality lies in the fact that it is written in an ‘official’ hand and has remained at Lincoln since the time of its first issue.


8. Magna Carta 1215: the Cotton charter, with corrections at the foot

Of the subsequent reissues, ‘originals’ are scattered across the cathedral and college libraries of England. Few institutions bothered to keep a complete series of Magna Cartas, from 1215 through to the final issue of 1300. The only real exception here is Durham Cathedral, which still possesses its originals from 1216, 1225, and 1300. Elsewhere, the general principle seems to have been rather like that applied to modern telephone directories: to acquire the latest version and bin its predecessors. Thus, there are six surviving originals of the 1300 issue (now in the archives of Westminster Abbey, the City of London, Faversham Town Council, Durham Cathedral, and Oriel College and the Bodleian Library at Oxford), more than survive for any previous issue including those of 1215 and 1217, which can boast four examples each. The 1216 reissue, which had legal validity for less than a year, is preserved in a solitary original at Durham. Many of these documents survived as a result of the very obscurity in which they were kept; for example, the 1225 Magna Carta sent into Wiltshire (preserved in the nunnery of Lacock and thence by the post-Reformation owners of Lacock Abbey, the Fox Talbot family), or the 1297 Magna Carta and Forest Charter sent into Surrey (preserved in the archives of an obscure Sussex nunnery and thence scattered by a more recent owner, the Forest Charter to the British Library, the Magna Carta eventually and via a tortuous route to the Australian Parliament in Canberra). There is nothing so conducive to the preservation of historical evidence as benign neglect.

The greatest Magna Carta collections are those housed today in the British Library (which has one 1225 and two 1215 charters besides the original Articles of the Barons), and the Bodleian Library in Oxford (which has three originals of the 1217 issue, one of 1225, and one – perhaps an original, perhaps not – from the issue of 1300). Only two original Magna Cartas are known to exist outside England: that in Canberra, acquired in the 1950s, and the 1297 Magna Carta now displayed in the National Archives at Washington, purchased in the early 1980s by the American billionaire Ross Perot from the Brudenell family of Deene Park in Northamptonshire. This was auctioned in 2007 for the staggering sum of $21.3 million: the highest price ever paid for a single sheet of parchment. During cataloguing for the 2007 sale, at least two Magna Cartas, previously listed as copies, were reidentified as ‘originals’, and no fewer than four new originals of the Forest Charter came to light. No doubt there are other originals, perhaps of Magna Carta, almost certainly of the Forest Charter, still awaiting discovery, listed as copies or concealed behind catalogue entries describing them merely as ‘royal charters’. This was the fate of the Hereford Magna Carta of 1217, catalogued merely as a ‘charter of Henry III’ and identified as an original Magna Carta as recently as 1989.

Not all has been unruffled calm for Magna Carta in the past century. The 700th anniversary celebrations in 1915 produced what is still the only clause-by-clause commentary, and a flurry of academic articles. Nonetheless, the First World War led to ‘Defence of the Realm’ regulations that ran entirely contrary to the spirit of Magna Carta clauses 38–40. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Lincoln original of the 1215 charter happened to be on display at the New York World’s Fair. There, it became the focus of semi-farcical attempts to tip American opinion in favour of the British war effort, with proposals discussed in 1940, backed by Winston Churchill, that it be gifted to the American people. This idea, which would have involved an outright denial of the property rights of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, entirely contrary to the spirit of Magna Carta, was eventually shelved, but only after attempts to persuade the British Museum to give up one of its Magna Cartas to be sent to Lincoln as a substitute. Instead, the Lincoln charter spent the War under close guard at Fort Knox. Attempts in 1948 to ensure that the Lacock original of the 1225 Magna Carta, sent on temporary display to Washington, remain there permanently proved equally fruitless. So did proposals, raised as recently as the American bicentennial in 1976, that the Queen make just such a gift. The fact that the Queen herself owns no original Magna Carta was not the least of the objections to this idea. Ever since the 1770s, there have been demands that 15 June, ‘Magna Carta Day’, be set aside as a public holiday. A senior British official, asked to comment on one such proposal in 1947, opposed it precisely because it seemed to place liberty above obedience to British rule: ‘Colonial peoples might be led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document which they had not read but which they presumed to contain guarantees of every so-called “right” they might be interested at the moment in claiming.’

From Runnymede to Fort Knox, and from the Roman Empire to the modern industrial state, the story of Magna Carta has taken us far from English medieval law. As its 800th anniversary approaches, Magna Carta continues to command a unique combination of interest and veneration. It still has many mysteries. Remarkable though this may seem, we still do not know who wrote it: its scribes will only be identified when all of the many hundreds of routine documents that King John’s chancery issued have been properly collected and assessed. There is still no definitive critical edition that collates all of the various readings of Magna Carta in all of the originals. Equally remarkable, although a clause-by-clause commentary to the 1215 charter was published in the early 20th century (and hence is badly in need of revision), there has never been a clause-by-clause commentary to Magna Carta 1225, even though it is Magna Carta 1225 that entered English law and whose clauses still remain on the statute book. The language of Magna Carta, its references for example to ‘liberty’, has yet to be properly probed. What precisely was meant by such terms, and do these meanings accord with modern perceptions of ‘liberty’ or ‘law’?

Various of these questions, it is to be hoped, will be answered in the course of the celebrations in 2015. Even then, the mystique will not fade. Frederick Maitland, the greatest of English legal historians, described Magna Carta as a document caught in permanent tension between ‘theoretical sanctity and practical insecurity’. In much the same way, modern Runnymede, the place where in George VI’s words ‘it all started’, is a combination of the hallowed and the chaotic: a calm oasis of monuments and water meadow sandwiched uneasily between the M3 motorway and the booming flightpaths of Heathrow Airport. The paradox of modern Runnymede is perhaps a fitting place for us to end our survey of Magna Carta, that most paradoxical yet still most totemic of documentary relics.

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