Zachary Gorman’s study of Magna Carta explains the historical context for societies defending their freedoms, writes historian Adam Wakeling.
On 13 November 1945, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee assured the US Congress not to fear his recently-elected Labour Government. “We, in the Labour Party, declare that we are in line with those who fought for Magna Carta, habeas corpus, with the Pilgrim Fathers and with the signatories of the Declaration of Independence,” he said in his address. Labour’s Britain would remain a free country and an ally of Washington. Labour’s red was not the red of Communism.
That Attlee began his statement with Magna Carta is not surprising. The Great Charter, imposed on King John by his rebellious barons at Runnymede in June 1215, is today one of the most famous documents in the English-speaking world and a symbol of the triumph of constitutional government over absolute monarchy. All those who claim to be for freedom uphold it. Copies of the 1297 version are proudly displayed at the US National Archives in Washington D.C. and the Australian Parliament House in Canberra. A replica of the original 1215 Charter is on display in the US Capitol. Attlee’s American audience would have immediately grasped its significance.
The purpose of Gorman’s book is to place the Charter in its historical context.
The lasting importance of the Charter would have been surprising in its early years. On first reading, it is a glorified shopping list of the barons’ concerns, and is filled with clause after clause dealing with the inheritance of estates, navigation on rivers, management of forests, and other mundane concerns of 13th century life. The men who wrote it, nobles who owed their position in society to conquest, were not liberals and certainly not democrats. They would have considered the American Declaration of Independence—with its affirmation of universal equality—to be at best, quaint, and at worst, dangerous. The Charter was not a statement of English liberty, as the King and his nobles were all Norman-French and English was a foreign language to them. The Charter even failed in its original purpose. It was intended as a peace treaty to end the civil war between King John and the barons, yet they came to blows again within months of its signing.
What, then, are we to make of Magna Carta today? This is the subject of Summoning Magna Carta: Freedom’s Symbol over a Millennium, by historian Zachary Gorman. The central purpose of Gorman’s book is to place the Charter in its historical context, not as an immediate game-changer, but as a document which gained significance through how it was treated over the centuries. He writes more broadly of how societies find justification for freedom, and how the Charter fills this function in English law.
Gorman follows English constitutional history from Alfred the Great to the Glorious Revolution, and from there, to the political evolution of the US and Australia. While the Charter was written and signed by Normans, Gorman argues its principles have Anglo-Saxon origins, and it claimed to “re-establish the ‘proven’ laws of Edward the Confessor”. Hence, he begins the story well before the Norman Conquest. And while it was signed by King John, it only really came into its own during the long reign of his son and successor, Henry III, who re-issued it several times in an effort to keep the peace with his barons. In this he failed, and like his father, he ended up embroiled in a war against them.
However, over the following centuries, parliamentary and constitutional processes replaced civil war as the means of resolving disputes between the nobility and the Crown. Today, if the barons do not like government policy, they speak against it from the benches of the House of Lords.
While Gorman’s scope is broad, I found his lively narrative of the Norman Kings of England to be the most engaging part of the book. Holding precariously onto their crown in a land in which the language and customs were alien to them against the machinations of nobles nearly as powerful as they were, they needed to be flexible and use whatever tools they had at their disposal. Magna Carta was one such tool.
Another interesting theme is the historiography of Magna Carta; how different generations have perceived the document and its significance. England’s medieval kings continued to re-issue the Charter, but it was treated with scepticism by the Tudors and Stuarts, who rejected the legitimacy of any rebellion against the Crown. Instead, it was now championed by lawyers and legal academics.
Edward Coke, in his Institutes of the Lawes of England (1628–1644) praised its “great importance and weightinesse” and wrote a clause-by-clause commentary of the document. In 1759, Sir William Blackstone, author of the famous Commentaries of the Laws of the England, published an annotated version that is still used today. With the Glorious Revolution of 1688, absolute monarchy was finally crushed as an idea, and so the Charter won. Or, at least, the idealised version which generations of scholars had come to venerate.
Kings have justified exercising power over their subjects through being wiser and stronger than them, having better-quality ancestors, and perhaps most commonly, being hand-picked to rule by God (or gods). On what basis, then, can a subject claim freedom from the king’s arbitrary power? Gorman identifies three: religion, history and custom, or secular reasoning. He finds examples of all three in England from Anglo-Saxon times to the modern day.
It is no hyperbole that Gorman calls Magna Carta ‘freedom’s symbol’.
Magna Carta is an example of a justification found in history and custom. Its authors did not claim divine inspiration, nor did they feel the need to give a philosophical rationale for it in the same way Thomas Jefferson did for the Declaration of Independence. That anyone was actually liberated by its signing is unlikely. Medieval England remained an authoritarian state, and almost all of its content has since been repealed from the statute books. It had less practical effect than the development of parliament as an institution in the time of John’s successors, or the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
But it is no hyperbole that Gorman calls Magna Carta freedom’s symbol, because it was seen as a promise by so many of those who did work towards the eventual goal of government through an elected parliament. Replacing absolute monarchy with a stable model of parliamentary democracy is without doubt critical to the lasting success of the British system of government. Gorman writes that “history is not a teleology and victories can only be won for the present”, and the Charter’s turbulent history is filled with many such victories, often followed by setbacks. But each time it was affirmed, it grew steadily harder to ignore. Gorman’s book is an approachable and well-researched account of its journey.
Adam Wakeling is an Australian lawyer and historian. His most recent book is A House of Commons for a Den of Thieves: Australia’s Journey from Penal Colony to Democracy.
Dr Zachary Gorman produced Summoning Magna Carta: Freedom’s Symbol over a Millennium while a Research Fellow at the IPA. Read more about Magna Carta and purchase at www.ipamagnacarta.org.au