So, was Hancock right? (!)

There really is nothing like a classic comedy sketch to highlight confusion and/or ignorance over important historical events. Such is the case with this outburst by Tony Hancock in an edition of his semi-eponymous sitcom. As the foreman of an immovable jury, seemingly mystified as to why his fellow jurors cannot agree with him about the defendant’s innocence (‘Well, he’s got such a lovely face…‘), he bellows at them:

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?! That brave Hungarian peasant girl, who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede to close the boozers at half-past ten?

The Hancock statue in Birmingham city centre
The Hancock statue in Birmingham city centre

Whether or not Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were joking when they said in an interview that their 1959 homage to the Henry Fonda drama “Twelve Angry Men” ‘saved us the bother of coming up with an idea that particular week‘, that episode of “Hancock’s Half Hour” was not the first time that cluelessness over England’s past had been satirised. W C Sellar and R J Yeatman also did so to devastating effect in their 1930 parody textbook 1066 and All That, as illustrated in this immortal passage:

[William] Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question.

Exactly eight hundred years after King John sulkily assented to Magna Carta (the Great Charter) at Runnymede (with no Hungarian peasant girls in sight), don’t be too surprised if only a minority of the population of England feel like commemorating the event. It’s also a fair bet that there will be little (if any) attention paid to the event in Scotland: not only was Magna Carta sealed long before the Act of Union, but the Scots themselves have their own iconic constitutional event – the 1320 Arbroath Declaration – to commemorate in five years’ time. The Declaration’s two most stirring sentences will doubtless be much on the minds of Nicola Sturgeon and her party:

As long as only one hundred of us remain alive, we will never on any conditions be brought under English rule. For we fight not for glory, nor riches, nor honour, but for freedom, which no good man gives up except with his life.

Nonetheless, you know that there are problems with a nation’s treatment of its past when its prime minister is shaky about its details, and when Britons are more familiar with the US Declaration of Independence than of Magna Carta.

Such ignorance about the past among some in Britain can certainly produce curious results. Eleven years ago, a poll commissioned by a BBC television series about historic battles found that that a tenth of those questioned believed that the Orange Order marched on 12 July to commemorate William of Orange’s victory in the Battle of Helm’s Deep (an event in J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). Even nationalist residents’ groups in Belfast and Portadown might have had some sympathy for the Order’s director of services, Dr David Hume, when he said ‘A lot of elderly Orangemen will be appalled by this.’

So what was the fuss all about, eight centuries ago? Put simply, Magna Carta was the first time a divinely-ordained monarch had had the law laid down to him by his subjects. It was the first time that it was legally established that the law is bigger than all of us, and nobody, however high and mighty they may be, is above it.

Essentially, what happened in 1215 was that King John’s barons finally lost patience with him after sixteen years of misrule. It wasn’t just that John was a tyrant (who was so vicious that he even personally murdered his own nephew for an imagined slight), he was also incompetent, and lost a war against France. Following defeat at the Battle of Bouvines, John’s feudal inferiors threatened civil war unless he agreed to having his wings clipped a little.

Just four of Magna Carta’s original 63 clauses remain in force in England and Wales: Clause 1, protecting the Church in England (in which, in the words of comedian Paul Sinha, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton ‘played a blinder’); Clause 13, assuring the liberties and customs of London and other towns; Clause 39, in which no-one can be jailed or disadvantaged by the state without due process of law; and of course, the famous Clause 40, which is frequently quoted:

To no man will we sell, defer, or deny, right or justice

Magna Carta continued to influence and inspire down the centuries. Critics of English Crown in the 17th Century would frequently cite it to remind the monarch of the day of the limits of his power and authority. It was also on the minds of the American revolutionaries as they fought and won their War of Independence in the 18th Century, and used it as a model when drafting the US Constitution.

It is important, though, when commemorating Magna Carta, not to get too carried away about it. As Simon Schama notes in his History of Britain, ‘No-one should read Magna Carta as though it were a primitive constitution.’ The rights and liberties that King John was forced to guarantee were those of England’s nobility, rather than the population as a whole. Back we thus turn to Sellar and Yeatman, who offer another revealing ditty on the subject:

Magna Charter was… the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People)

Magna Carta was nonetheless one of the landmark constitutional events in our history (a separate Charter – Magna Carta Hiberniae – was issued to apply to Ireland in 1216). The hottest constitutional issue at the moment (if you leave out the ongoing uncertainty as to whether a Brexit is on the cards in 2017, and, thereafter, a renewed independence referendum in Scotland) is whether the government in Britain should replace the 1998 Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights (even though the Human Rights Act incorporates the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, which in its turn was drafted by a committee whose members included British politicians). Both the pro- and anti-Human Rights Act camps will doubtless invoke Magna Carta in their campaigns, but even if a section of the population do think that this was the name of a brave Hungarian peasant girl, its continued importance and relevance after eight centuries should surely prove that no, she didn’t die in vain…