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.”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty