Magna Carta: “in England today we may do what we like, / So long as we do what we’re told.””

Good piece by Allan Massie pointing out that the Magna Carta is not the great founding document of British democracy being made out, not least because both the Tudor’s and the Stuarts found relatively easy ways to circumvent the common law it sought to restate and underwrite.

He argues that its tenets never properly came into force until England, albeit temporarily, became a Republic…

If Shakespeare makes no mention of the document it is because in the years of the Tudor despotism the balance between government and governed shifted in favour of the former.

The Tudors made use of what were called the Prerogative Courts to bypass the common law of England. Torture, practised on “subversive” Roman Catholics by the Elizabethan government, was illegal under the common law (and indeed under Magna Carta), but inflicted by the judgment of the Prerogative Courts (the Star Chamber and High Commission).

It was the parliamentary and judicial opposition to the less effective (and less oppressive) despotism of the early Stuarts which revived interest in Magna Carta, now presented as the safeguard or guarantee of English liberty.

Though it had been drawn up by Anglo-Norman bishops and presented to the king by Anglo-Norman barons, the theory was developed that it represented a statement of the rights and liberties enjoyed in Anglo-Saxon England by the “free-born” Englishmen before they were subjugated to the “Norman Yoke”.

This, doubtless, offered an unhistorical and rather-too-rosy view of Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, but it had this to be said for it: that the Norman and Plantagenet kings had regularly promised to abide by the “laws of King Edward” – the saintly “Confessor” and second-last Saxon king.

Be that as it may, it is significant that one of the first acts of the English Revolution of 1640-41 was the abolition of the Prerogative Courts, which were declared to have been always illegal; and that they were not brought back after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

All true. But it is worth quoting Machiavelli’s broader comparison of two separate types of kingdom for which examples France and that of “The Turk”:

The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks, he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses.

But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril.

In one patronage flows only in one direction (downwards from “The Prince”), in the other in two (down from the The Prince, and upwards from “The Barons”).

Last word to Marriott Edgar and Stanley Holloway (VIDEO):

Nevertheless, the last verse of Marriott Edgar’s monologue offers a sceptical and very English gloss on the claims made for it: “And it’s through that there Magna Carta / As were signed by the barons of old, / That in England today we may do what we like, / So long as we do what we’re told.”


  • Nordie Northsider

    Tony Hancock had the best take on this:

  • The most important thing to bear in mind: Magna Carta is a more than decent Marstons pub, and probably the nearest one to the West End of Lincoln Cathedral.

    The only parts of the 1297 (note the date!) original still in force are:
    ¶ 1: the rights of the Church of England;

    ¶ 9: the rights of the City of London, and other boroughs;

    ¶ 29: No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor either condemn him or deal with him , but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.

    That last section is interesting not just because it comes so far down the priorities of the feudal lords, but also because there were so few “Freemen”. As G.G. Coulton (The Medieval Village, page 11) points out:

    In the whole county of Cambridge there were, at the Conquest, 900 socmen; these sank in twenty years to 213. That shows how the increase of serfdom was still more rapid than the decrease of actual slavery. Thus, by a perfectly natural process, while the slave of Anglo-Saxon days disappeared, the Anglo-Saxon freeman became frequently merged in the serf. Freemen themselves slowly but steadily grew in numbers; not only by formal manumission, but by taking advantage of many small loopholes. But the serf was worse off in the days of Magna Carta than he had been at the Conquest; and far more than 50 per cent of the population were still serfs in 1324.

    It was the Black Death, more than Magna Carta, which liberated the serf by making paid labour more normal.

  • Greenflag

    Thanks for the enlightenment Malcolm . From my readings of economic history I can agree that the Black Death did more to ‘liberate ‘ the English serfs than Magna Carta .

    I would’nt discount Magna Carta altogether as it was the first attempt to moderate /reduce the powers of absolute -Divine Right monarchy in Europe /world . The ‘robber ‘ barons of those days had to be appeased much as they are appeased in today’s world by the granting of the right to loot and pillage and extort by the powers that were and still are .

    We claim to live in a representative democracies but who exactly do our elected representatives represent in 2014 ?

    Wall St and the City not the people of Lincoln or Scunthorpe or Lucan 🙁

    Given that half the population can’t be bothered to vote perhaps Chinese one party authoritarian capitalism is the wave of the future and Chou en Lai’s dictum on the French Revolution’s success being a little to early to predict may be revisited .

    Given China’s Number 2 party leader’s extravagant welcome by Queenie and Mr Cameron with his proffered huge financial investment for the City I guess nobody should be surprised .

    Would it have been any different if Ed Milliband were PM . I think not 🙁

    Not that the UK is the only country that bends over backwards to the emerging economic giant of Asia . Pity tricky Dicky Nixon isn’t around to see how China became the giant export market for the USA’s manufactured exports that he and Henry Kissinger predicted back in the mid 1970’s .

    Brave New World indeed .

  • Seamuscamp

    The Magna Charta Hiberniae (1217), was the version of Magna Carta that applied to Ireland – or rather to Anglo-Norman Ireland. By the Statute Law Revision Act 2007, the Oireachtas repealed a lot of pre-1922 legislation, but retained the Magna Charta Hiberniae. I suppose that means the lawyers saw some virtue in it (not a great plus in my mind). MC and MCH had as little to do with democracy as had Athenian Greece. They were formulae for oligarchy to replace Divine Right.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Seamuscamp, “MC and MCH …. were formulae for oligarchy to replace Divine Right.”

    Not quite accurate, as Divine Right was rather a seventeenth century concept, but perfectly right about MC being a step down to oligarchy, which has transformed itself over the centuries to the elective serial oligarchy we currently chose to inaccurately describe as “Democracy”, although it has never been any kind of rule by “the people” but rule by an increasingly self-selected miniscule fraction of “the people”.

    I do wish that people would read their Plato…..

  • Greenflag

    “as Divine Right was rather a seventeenth century concept,”

    I believe the idea of DR is much older than the 17th century . The early Irish missionaries (religious consultants /proselytizers / conversion expeditioners ) to the early post Roman Empire babrbarian kings formulated the DR concept as a marketing tool to their most important clients .

    For the Goths /Germans /Franks etc tribal cheiftains it gave an added source of legitimacy to their rule . Prior to this it had been biggest thug /killer / mobster who ruled usually with the help of related allies who were in for cut of the loot .
    However with God on your side and having been anointed by God’s official representative on earth then it naturally followed that anyone opposed to one’s rule ipso facto was a follower of Satan i,e anti the will of God .

    During the War of the Roses both Yorkists and Lancastrians claimed divine right but by then the power seekers had long become adept at using ‘religion ‘ to justify their sepaarte claims .

    Absolute monarchy was just a stage in political development as nation states evolved and governments over time became more representative of their populations . Constitutional monarchy is the ‘tamed ‘ version . In it’s ‘purest ‘ form absolute monarchy continues to exist in North Korea and those other parts of the world where a single leader /despot / family continues to hold all power with no opposition .

    Whoever heard of the Irishwoman – Violet Gibson who came closest to assassinating Benito Mussolini in 1926 ?

    Here’s a link to RTE’s excellent radio documentary on the lady herself

    Odd to be reminded that in 1926 the upper echelons of both British and Irish society regarded Il Duce with some affection . It appears that modern despot Vlad the” tiger tamer’ Putin has modeled his public demonstrations of ‘manly ‘ activitity on the earlier Benito’s tendencies to be photgraphed bare torsoed chopping down trees etc etc .

    Violet Gibson was not taken in by the then glorification of the right wing media as they adulated Il Duce as the ‘saviour ‘ of western civilisation ‘ until the next ‘saviour ‘ Hitler arrived to eh ‘expand ‘ Il Duce’s horizons .

    Now if Ms Gibson had succeeded in her attempt ? mmmmm ?

    Whats needed is another Magna Carta minus the later Black Death which will ensure that paid labour in the Western world is at a rate which will keep millions from perpetual poverty and increasing debt/servitude .

    Why shoud 5 families in Britain have as much wealth between them as 12 million Britons ?

    The early 20th century Russian Tsars would be envious of these 5 if they were still around – but they’re not .Now how did that happen again ?

  • Seamuscamp

    “Divine Right was rather a seventeenth century concept”
    Divine Right as a concept existed long before the Scots formulation in Basiikon Doron in the 16th century. The philosophic line stretches back through The Holy Roman Emperors, the pre-Christian Divine Roman Emperors, Jewish Kings, Egyptian Pharaohs etc, to the Babylonians. Even Pontius Pilate was in on it (see John 19). The Chinese had their Mandate of Heaven. Nothing new, Horatio.

    I don’t think 29 can be said to have survived – eg internment, Diplock, Enclosure Acts, Great Act of Attainder, Williamite forfeitures, etc.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Seamuscamp, that’s the trouble with being an historian! These terms tend to acquire very precise technical meanings. For professional historians the Divine Right of Kings IS a rather precise seventeenth century formulation of the idea, under a particular brand name. The loose philosophical idea of the king as God’s chosen ruler is of course a more general idea, but does not necessarily go under that brand name, certainly not during the 12/13the century. So when John was knocking about Ardglass, he was simply an anointed king, not a proponent of the divine right theory as we think of it as historians, where the king was not only chosen by god but took the place of god on earth, much in the way that the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin acted as the King of England’s “presence” in Dublin.

    Pedantry, I know, perhaps, but speaking of “Divine Right” in King John’s day is like speaking of Winstanley’s “Communism”. The Diggers and Levellers of the Interregnum had never heard of Marx, had no concept of dialectical materialism, but shared very, very general concepts with Marx.

    But there is no reason for us to fall out about any of this. We all know what the other is talking about. And we all know that our representative “democracy” is simply an elective oligarchy.

    Greenflag, did you know that Violet was the sister of our own Liam MacGiolla Brid (Lord Ashbourne, president of Conradh na Gaeilge in the new Free State)?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hiya Greenflag! Interesting how points one attempts to make, even at length, can all too easily disolve under the cold eye of fact:

    “Violet Gibson was not taken in by the then glorification of the right wing media as they adulated Il Duce as the ‘saviour ‘ of western civilisation ‘ until the next ‘saviour ‘ Hitler arrived to eh ‘expand ‘ Il Duce’s horizons.”

    At her hearing Violet clearly stated that, far from acting out of indignation against the forces of reaction, she had carried out her assassination attempt “for love” of Giovanni Colonna, Duke di Cesarò. Cesarò was a member of the aristocratic opposition, an intensely right wing opponent of the “radical upstart” Mussolini, who, in their eyes, was a dangerous Neitzschean, debauching Italy with Sorelian Syndicalism!!!! Supporters of Mussolini during the nineteen twenties surprisingly tended to have at least some radical edge, although the very right wing, Rotha Lintorn-Orman influenced, local coterie of the rather feminist “British Fascisti,” based in Kilkeel tended to be hard core Unionists to a woman.

    Yeats said that all reality layered itself like carved Chinese Ivory balls, “one within the other” and as you went deeper in each layer tended to contradict the impressions of the previous layer. The way you have presnted Violet seems to be yet another case of what I’ve been warning Nevin about for years, “do not rely on the media, or the internet for important research, go to books written by people who have taken time and trouble to study these things.” I get so many calls from media researchers trying to get me to do their work for them, and if they think a flâneur such as I can be relied on for anything important, I dread to think who else they are turning to!!!!

    For Violet’s real story, well researched, try Frances Stonor Saunders’ excellent book, “The Woman Who Shot Mussolini,” now out of print but available at a cracking price on the net!

  • Seamuscamp

    I bow to your superior knowledge – though I have to say my regard for professional historians is somewhat “timeo Danaos”. Too much Lecky in my youth; too much Ferguson in my old age.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Poor Niall, such good beginings but “he failed and went to Harvard” to steal John Geilgoud’s “bon mot” about Claude Rains Hollywood career.

    As something of a contrarian in my historical practice I sneekingly agree with you in part, but these clear definitions are all we have to hold out the inevitable flood of lies that the self-serving great insist is their story for posterity.

    But I was truley delighted when you pointed out [above] that Magna Carta is simply a document crafted to substitute an oligarchy for the rule of one, and could not resist the stretching of this implicit elitism down to cover even our own “free” system. Thank you for pointing this all important “Chinese Ball” within the popular vision of Magna Carta!

  • Greenflag

    @ seamusuineill’

    ‘did you know that Violet was the sister of our own Liam MacGiolla Brid (Lord Ashbourne, president of Conradh na Gaeilge in the new Free State)?”

    No – I was aware that Violet’s father Lord Ashbourne was a Unionist , Home Ruler and Imperialist and that his son William (your Liam ) became estranged from his father /family for holding views considered then ‘radical ‘ .Thanks for the info .

    Violet was according to the documentary none too healthy and always prone to emotional upheavals having had much earlier tragedy in her life . Women especially those who had strong or even any political views back at that faced more than glass ceilings . Women in Violet’s social class who were restricted by family from anything that might bring them into contact with then social /economic and political realities had a particularly tough time . The Gore Booths /Pankhursts etc etc .

    Thanks for the book reference .

    But anybody who takes a shot at a Mussolini or a Hitler in my book goes top of the class regardless of their politics or class or ethnic background .

    The individuals who believe that God has chosen them to be KIng or Saint or Saviour or Messiah with evidence garnered from reading chicken’s entrails or hallucinations have at times played significant roles in history – Joan of Arc being just one .

    On a broader level nations /states modern or historic who believe/believed they are somehow the chosen tribe of God are nothing of the sort .

    It’s simply a case of successful brainwashing achieved by repetition and an excuse for those who have a political /economic advantage impose their power on the “unchosen ‘

    It’s all batshit crazy but then we know that don’t we ?

  • Greenflag

    ‘semus camp,

    ”Too much Lecky in my youth; too much Ferguson in my old age.’

    Alas I’ve never read any Lecky but have read Ferguson .Their worlds that of the middle to late 19th century and late 20th /early 21st century are in some respects as different as chalk and cheese and in other respects the ‘great game ‘ continues just with more players .

    Lecky’s world ended in 1918 .Ferguson’s is still around -for now . His six killer apps for western supremacy are looking less convincing and – I await his next tome on the West’s 5 suicidal apps with bated breath .

    Pinketty is the new Keynes ? but more on that much later .

    Magna Carta needs a radical makeover as does Bretton Woods . But our oligarchs and their corporate /financial backers have their snouts too deep in the trough to look any higher than the opposite trough rim 🙁

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi, Greenflag, old Lord Ashbourne disinherited his son financially, but Liam had the last laugh and was the very first person to make his maiden speech in the House of Lords in Irish dressed in full Irish Ireland finery (his father had no control whatsoever over the descent of the title!!!)

    Liam also thought that speaking English “deformed the mouth” (true, it makes the mouth too lazy to pronounce Irish properly, as Irish needs a lot more actual mouth movement). Also, that leather shoes deformed the feet, so he wore plimsoles with his habitual kilt, bonnet and brat. He aws a great friend of many of the French Modern Movement painters and there is a wonderful 1920s statue of him striding forward so clad!

    Violet’s motives are not insignificant, espessially when she is being described as “not taken in by the then glorification of the right wing media” when in fact she was acting for the sake of Conservative Catholicism and the Italian Nobility, ie: the right wing!!!!! So please do not try and fudge this! The women was actually much more right wing than poor Benito, she just did not like hearing the Blackshirts sing, “Giovinezza”. You’d be on much, much safer ground with the extraordinary Eva Gore-Booth whose trip to Italy brought her to espouse gay rights and social activism.

    Still, I cannot but fully agree with your assessment of our boy Neill, and after such a very promising start…….

    As for Magna Carta, it simply needs to be forgotten and a real bill of rights created. And actually carried through to some action. The use of Magna Carta as a “touchstone of our freedoms” is a piece of (again) seventeenth century sillyness by another gang of Oligarchs who were again looking to their own interests.

    (“SeaanUiNeill” by the way, but I suppose the eyesight begins to weaken when one comes to that time of life……)