Magna Carta and the achievement of moral equality

It may have skipped your notice that the magna carta is 800 years old today. On the other hand, Google has doodled it, so you may be sick of hearing about it by now. The amazing thing about the Magna Carta (or ‘Great Charter’, ‘huge paper’, ‘big list’) is that its influence is more in terms of its symbolic relevance than its original content.

There is a marvellous exhibition of the history and impact of the Magna Carta currently at the British Library, and if you get a chance to look at it you will find that many of the provisions laid down in the Magna Carta were very quickly reverted, changed, addressed in a different charter or fundamentally ignored. Yet the symbolic nature of the Magna Carta lies in its existence as evidence of an agreement between unequal parties, as a contract between ruler and ruled.

At Runnymede in June 1215, the then monarch of England, King John (yes, that King John! The one previously at odds with a certain be-stockinged outlaw based in Nottinghamshire) was in a difficult spot. The many wars between his brothers and father had contributed to his loss of England’s lands in Northern France, and Richard’s involvement in the Third Crusade had drained the coffers of the Treasury which were further depleted by John’s attempts to reclaim lands in France. The ‘taxpayer’, that is, the English barons (particularly in the North), were not particularly pleased with John’s failures and his constant demands for money. Neither did he have the support of the church, having fallen out with the Pope some years previously and had barely returned to his good graces when the English barons marched on London.  The conditions of the Magna Carta were forced upon John, who promptly ignored them, perpetuating civil war in England until his death (probably from dysentry) in 1216.

Now, I’m not a historian, so why is this contextual idiosyncracy around the rule of a despotic monarch of interest? The Magna Carta is held as a precious moment in history by the Law profession, as it symbolises a key moment when the highest secular power (the monarch) is held to account by (secular) law. This raising of the importance of the secular law is perhaps why the Magna Carta was immediately challenged by the Church. The very principle of the administration of justice in this world rather than in an afterlife is encoded in the document.

The actual contents of the original document, however, were subject to substantial revisions with few unaltered articles remaining in the revised versions and the most substantial effects at the time pertained to rights of common people to the access and use of Royal Forest land to gather firewood and pasture animals. The majority of these rights were protected in a later separate charter (the Forest Charter) by Henry III.

However, the majority of discussions on the impact of the Magna Carta refer to the principles of government rather than those of land use and ownership. Social reform movements appropriated the symbol of the Magna Carta to challenge the authority of Imperial rulers (hence the significance of the Magna Carta in the USA), as well as the legitimacy of the rule of the propertied classes. The Magna Carta is therefore identified as influential in the suffragete movement, the civil rights movement and the human rights movement. And so it is the symbolic nature of the event, rather than the sealed vellum parchment, which highlights the Magna Carta as the start of a recognition of universal moral equality.

Nonetheless, it is important to reconsider the content of the original and revised charters. For while the principles of moral equality are enshrined in contemporary legal documents such as the Declaration of Human Rights, these documents focus primarily on civil liberties, the right to liberty and freedom from degrading treatment. The later articles are rarely discussed, such as the right to desirable work and an adequate living standard. In the original concerns of the Magna Carta, even the privileged English barons challenge the authority of an absent monarch to determine that people be unable to heat their homes or feed their families. Moral equality is more than an abstract principle, and considering the vast inequalities growing in our contemporary societies, the Magna Carta is perhaps a better touchstone than some for reconsidering how that ought to be implemented today.

The exhibition on the Magna Carta in the British Library continues until 1st September 2015

The British Library website also has loads of amazing information about the charter