Who did the Magna Carta really protect?
June 15, 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of King John being forced by some of his barons to sign Magna Carta, thereby granting to every Englishman the right to a representative assembly, trial by jury, a fresh bacon sarnie, and protection from the arbitrary use and abuses of power. It is the foundation document of western democracy, freedom of the individual, and the first in a long line of civil and political rights granted to the people over the centuries.
Despite what you’ve probably heard or been taught, Magna Carta did none of these things. Well, it kinda did the “protection from arbitrary uses and abuses of power” thing, but even then it wasn’t absolute. It was much less than all that. And [sarcasm alert] there’s no good historical reason to think that it got the ball rolling towards the glorious freedom and equality that everyone around the world enjoys today.
What was it, then, you ask?
Magna Carta (The Great Charter), signed in 1215, was a concession by King John to some of his barons. It limited some royal power over the administration of justice, laid down some rights of the nobles and the clergy, and established that the monarch was not above the law.
It didn’t establish democracy, or even start the process toward it. The 1215 Magna Carta was repudiated by King John and the Church by mid-September of that year. It was re-written, and re-issued in 1216, 1217, 1225, and 1297. Each time, significant changes made it essentially a different edict, and each time it removed more of the limitations on royal power.
Further, it wasn’t much of a permanent settlement of the sharing of power in England. It didn’t prevent the English Civil War between Parliament and the Crown in the 1640s, the reign of Cromwell, the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, the struggles between Parliament and the King in the 1700s, and the difficulty in enacting political reform and voting rights from 1832 (the first Reform Act) to 1928 (final granting of the vote to all adult women). These were all immense struggles. They wouldn’t have been so difficult if Magna Carta had been all that it’s cracked up to be nowadays.
It was pretty weak as an actual foundation document. The reason it’s held in such high esteem is that politicians and legal scholars began to attach symbolic importance to it, however incorrectly, in the 1600s. One exaggerating commentator followed another down through the centuries and Magna Carta really became a “great” charter in the popular imagination.