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Perceptions of Magna Carta: Why has it been seen as significant?

1297 Magna Carta after conservation treatment - photo courtesy US National Archives
1297 Magna Carta after conservation treatment - photo courtesy US National Archives
1297 Magna Carta after conservation treatment – photo courtesy US National Archives

Perceptions of Magna Carta: Why has it been seen as significant?

Caroline Eele

Master’s Thesis, University of Durham, 2013

Abstract: Magna Carta has often been presented as the foundation of English liberties, guaranteeing the rights of English citizens against the arbitrary actions of those governing the country. Throughout its eight centuries of existence it has been cited in many political disputes and many rights and liberties have been attributed to it. Although Magna Carta was a thirteenth-century feudal charter created to resolve the immediate crisis of civil war, it has been perceived to be significant and relevant in many subsequent periods of British history. This study seeks to investigate the causes of this perception and explain why people have made appeals to it for eight hundred years.

Magna Carta was a series of concessions made by King John in June 1215 to his barons in an attempt to end civil war. In May, a group of barons had renounced their allegiance to John, accusing him of oppressive misgovernment and infringing their ancient liberties. The military successes of the baronial party led John to attempt to reach a settlement with the rebels. These negotiations resulted in the drawing up of a charter of liberties to deal with grievances, which later became known as Magna Carta. In this charter, John granted a set of liberties dealing with feudal, administrative and legal matters. Although within months the charter was annulled by the Pope and repudiated by the king, it was later reissued by supporters of Henry III during his minority to secure the new reign and confirmed by the king at the beginning of his personal rule in 1225. The 1225 version of the charter was placed on the first statute roll in 1297.

Whig historians in the nineteenth century venerated the charter and portrayed it as the basis of English liberty and the beginning of constitutional government. This view was attacked in the twentieth century as historians, such as Pollard and Painter, increasingly argued that Magna Carta was a reactionary document which merely asserted the feudal liberties of the great men in society and had little to say about constitutional issues. Although modern scholars have successfully discredited many of the traditional claims about the charter suggesting that its provisions were not as important as have been claimed, the charter has been seen as significant throughout its history. To investigate the reason for this seemingly inaccurate perception of the charter, this study will focus on five noteworthy periods: the first century of Magna Carta, opposition to the early Stuart kings, mid eighteenth-century Britain, eighteenth-century colonial America and Britain in the present day.

In the century after the creation of Magna Carta, the document was perceived to be significant because its specific provisions were of practical value to contemporary issues. Although the perception of the charter’s importance declined in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was revived in the early seventeenth century by those opposing the actions of James I and Charles I. The growth of the power of parliament over the course of the seventeenth century led to increasing fears that it was threatening people’s liberties. Thus, in the eighteenth century, campaigners attempted to challenge parliamentary actions and often cited Magna Carta to support their cases. In mid eighteenth-century Britain activists attempted to use such references to arouse the public while in British America, the colonists tried to persuade the British ruling elite to address their grievances. Even though in the last two hundred years the provisions of the charter have increasingly been perceived as obsolete and irrelevant, Magna Carta continues to be cited by activists today as they attempt to win public support for their campaigns about perceived infringements of civil liberties. Although this study is limited both in the number of periods considered and the depth of its examination of each situation, it will demonstrate that Magna Carta has been perceived as significant throughout the last eight centuries because people have believed that it is of use to them and their cause. The ability to present the charter as relevant, authoritative and important has led it to be valued in many periods of history by many different people.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Durham

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