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Magna Carta: its myths, mistakes and misconceptions

By John de Meyrick - posted Friday, 21 August 2015


With the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta having passed, and with so many things that were written and said about it at the time being just wrong, misleading and wildly exaggerated – "the foundation of liberty"; "the symbol of freedom"; "The charter that changed the world"; etc – it is worth setting the record straight before the subject returns to the history books.

But first, to put it in perspective, there are many myths and misconceptions about the significance of Magna Carta in both its historical context as well as in its influence on constitutional and legal development, not only in England but elsewhere throughout the world; for although it has served as an inspiration for various causes and advancements in matters of justice and human rights, it was, in the context of its time, a very unremarkable document involving nothing more than a list of parochial issues and demands by an elite group of self-serving rich and powerful barons as a futile attempt at settling a long and bitter series of armed conflicts with the King.

This is evinced by the fact that its two most important and lasting provisions – "No free man shall be seized, etc" and "To no one will we sell, etc" - come 39 and 40 in priority of its 63 clauses.

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Signed/Sealed: The most common mistake that was made by a number of noted commentators and the media, including the ABC, was to refer to Magna Carta as having been signed.

This is a common 'schoolboy error'. The four remaining copies of the document bear no signatures. They were sealed with King John's royal seal of office, attached to a ribbon interwoven through holes in the folded bottom edge of the document. Except on one of the copies which was damaged by fire in 1733, those seals are now missing.

Great Charter of Liberties: Many commentators also wrongly assumed that Magna Carta's importance was due to it having been the first document of its kind to grant liberties and freedoms to anyone.

Similar charters were granted by monarchs many times before and after Magna Carta. Parts of the 1215 version (then known as the Charter of Runnymede) were taken and revised from several earlier charters. It was not until the fifth version in 1237 that all versions to that time (plus two later) were/are collectively called Magna Carta.

To All Free Men of Our Kingdom: These exalted words in the Preamble to the document fooled many commentators into believing that the barons were making a magnanimous gesture of including everyone in their demands. But the only "free men" were the barons and those who held land by free tenure, or were free tenants, or were otherwise free and independent of a lord's service, or had approval to leave castle lands. That is thought to have been not more than sixty thousand in a (then, est.) population of England of around two million people, being mostly peasants.

Common Law: Magna Carta did not establish the common law as some claimed. The common law of England, ie, customary folk laws (dooms), were first recorded as far back as 594 in the Code of Ethelbert, Anglo-Saxon King of Kent, and was firmly established by 1178 during the reign of John's father, Henry II, whose time on the throne ushered in a period of significant judicial and administrative development.

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Rule of Law: Nor did Magna Carta establish or 'invent' the rule of law. That term, which is glibly referred to by politicians and others to mean that everyone is bound by the law, is frequently misused.

The rule of law is a concept of governance which had long been part of the English system. Magna Carta only reinforced the rule of law by the barons trying to make King John keep to those laws.

Democracy: Magna Carta did not establish nor introduce democracy into England nor, as it was claimed by some, that it had the effect of being instrumental in, or "provided the foundations of", a modern democracy which, by devolution, also brought democracy to Australia.

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About the Author

John de Meyrick is a barrister (ret’d), lecturer and writer on legal affairs.

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