CRF Blog

Magna Carta at 800

by David De La Torre

In The uses of history, The Economist looks at how a “failed treaty,” the Magna Carta, came to be seen as the foundation of liberty in the Anglo-American world.

Buried beneath the “scutage”, “novel disseisin” and “darrein presentment” there were, however, some grander notions, which many historians attribute to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, a theologian trained in Paris who later sided with the barons and was sacked by the pope. Certainly, there is evidence of a sharp intelligence at work, using a propitious moment to delineate more broadly the relations between a sovereign and his subjects. Scutage — a tax to pay for war — was to be levied only with “the general consent of the realm”. And chapter 39 in the original (29 in later versions) asserts that “no free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” That prohibition earned Magna Carta its place on the Supreme Court door.

This passage did not establish the right to trial by jury, for juries were already used extensively; nor is it clear what “the law of the land” meant, since there were no statutes, only customs. The language is not original — a similar phrase appeared in the Edict of Conrad II, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1037, and another in the second Treaty of Constance between the Emperor Barbarossa and the Lombard League in 1183. But on the European mainland the phrase disappeared into the murk of the Middle Ages, whereas in the Anglo-Saxon world it survived, to be revived and revered by subsequent generations. Why? [more]