Not surprisingly, given it was written 800 years ago, there’s much in Magna Carta that sounds alien to our 21st-century ears. From its heartfelt plea for ‘standard measures’ of wine and ale ‘throughout the kingdom’ to its rumination on what should happen to a man’s fortunes should he die while in debt to Jews, the medievalism of the document sings through its 63 clauses. And of course, as many historians point out, it’s a very historically specific document, designed to prevent a brewing civil war between influential rebel barons and a tyrannical king, John. Some sniff that Magna Carta was simply a wartime treaty, merely securing rights for stroppy 13th-century barons rather than for man- (far less woman-) kind.
Yet for all its medieval quirkiness, Magna Carta has a universalist heart that still beats today. It articulates the human desire for freedom so powerfully that some of its clauses sound as relevant, and urgent, to our ears now as they must have done to the barons, abbots and royals who witnessed the king’s sealing of Magna Carta in a field near Windsor on 15 June 1215. Indeed, these clauses would provide the foundation stone of the revolutions and constitutions that shaped the modern, democratic era, not just in Britain but in the US, France, and elsewhere. Even as far afield as China, democracy-seeking dissidents cite this dusty document sealed by an English king 800 years ago.
Consider Clause 38: ‘In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.’ Here, we have one of the earliest, and clearest, articulations of the importance of the rule of law, of letting citizens be, unless it can be proven, credibly, that they have committed an offence. Magna Carta says the arbitrary power of officialdom must be restrained by law. Or consider Clause 39: ‘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.’ Here, again, we have a proposal to shackle authority, to limit its ability to interfere with people’s rights or property. Clause 39, which still forms part of English law, is a clarion cry for the right of people (back then only barons, yes) to be ‘let alone’, as American revolutionaries would put it more than 500 years later.
The most important thing about Magna Carta is how it was interpreted, and acted upon, by future generations, particularly by the revolutionaries of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If Magna Carta planted the seed of an ideal that would radically reshape human affairs — that sometimes the state must be restrained in order to allow the flourishing of individual life and liberty — it was Magna Carta’s fans in subsequent decades who watered that seed, demanding that this ideal be spread beyond barons to all men, and eventually all people.
So Edward Coke, the 17th-century radical English jurist whose writings on Magna Carta introduced it to a whole new audience and helped give rise to the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, famously declared: [T]he house of every one is to him as his Castle and Fortress as well for his defence against injury and violence, as for his repose.’ Here, Magna Carta’s promise that no baron should be stripped of his rights or possessions was expanded to ‘every one’, whose ordinary home, said Coke, should be treated in the same way a baron’s castle was once treated: a place to be left alone. The liberal promise of Magna Carta was being spread. The idea of liberty, and privacy, was being expanded.