CRF Blog

The Rule of History

by Bill Hayes

In The Rule of History for the New Yorker, Jill Lepore reflects on the meaning of the Magna Carta.

The reign of King John was in all ways unlikely and, in most, dreadful. He was born in 1166 or 1167, the youngest of Henry II’s five sons, his ascension to the throne being, by the fingers on one hand, so implausible that he was not named after a king and, as a matter of history, suffers both the indignity of the possibility that he may have been named after his sister Joan and the certain fate of having proved so unredeemable a ruler that no king of England has ever taken his name. He was spiteful and he was weak, although, frankly, so were the medieval historians who chronicled his reign, which can make it hard to know quite how horrible it really was. In any case, the worst king of England is best remembered for an act of capitulation: in 1215, he pledged to his barons that he would obey “the law of the land” when he affixed his seal to a charter that came to be called Magna Carta. He then promptly asked the Pope to nullify the agreement; the Pope obliged. The King died not long afterward, of dysentery. “Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John,” it was said. This year, Magna Carta is eight hundred years old, and King John is seven hundred and ninety-nine years dead. Few men have been less mourned, few legal documents more adored.

Magna Carta has been taken as foundational to the rule of law, chiefly because in it King John promised that he would stop throwing people into dungeons whenever he wished, a provision that lies behind what is now known as due process of law and is understood not as a promise made by a king but as a right possessed by the people. Due process is a bulwark against injustice, but it wasn’t put in place in 1215; it is a wall built stone by stone, defended, and attacked, year after year. Much of the rest of Magna Carta, weathered by time and for centuries forgotten, has long since crumbled, an abandoned castle, a romantic ruin.

Magna Carta is written in Latin. The King and the barons spoke French. “Par les denz Dieu!” the King liked to swear, invoking the teeth of God. The peasants, who were illiterate, spoke English. Most of the charter concerns feudal financial arrangements (socage, burgage, and scutage), obsolete measures and descriptions of land and of husbandry (wapentakes and wainages), and obscure instruments for the seizure and inheritance of estates (disseisin and mort d’ancestor). [more]