The first things that need to be said about Magna Carta are that at the time of its birth its claim to be unique was much less obvious than passing centuries have made it seem; and that its survival was far from being assured. The thirteenth century was an age of charters: in 1222 (just 7 years after the Great Charter was sealed by King John) the so-called Golden Bull of King Andrew of Hungary was issued, containing provisions which on their face did not look or sound so much different from their English equivalent. From 1220-31 the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian granted charters which similarly had much in common with Magna Carta and in 1287 King Alfonso III of Aragon did likewise. Yet within a relatively short time these Hungarian, Imperial and Aragonese charters fell by the wayside and are now little more than a footnote of history. By contrast, Magna Carta, originally a failed attempt to broker peace between a king and his barons, has developed into something far beyond its initial remit and has taken on a force and resonance infinitely greater than anything which those who made the monarch put his name to it ever envisaged. How did this come to be?
The answer is: happenstance, and something more than happenstance. The Great Charter was saved from obscurity by the death of King John less than a year after its sealing and the accession of his 9-year-old son as Henry III. With the country in the grip of civil war and a French army in occupation of London, William the Marshal (one of two regents ruling in the name of the boy-king) reissued the Charter which King John had abrogated almost immediately it had been sealed. Thereafter, the Great Charter was frequently confirmed or re-issued – by some counts on as many as 40 separate occasions, the last during the reign of Henry VI in 1423.
These twin circumstances helped make Magna Carta what it eventually became, for the habit of re-issue made it almost an earnest of good intent on the part of each new king and ensured that it grew into a living, breathing instrument which on each re-issue came to encompass and consolidate the steady growth of freedoms which were built on its original wording. In the process, over the passing centuries the Great Charter was able to take account of and reflect developments in society at large. It is notable, for example, that the charter granted by King John in June 1215 nowhere mentions three things that in the public consciousness are now closely associated with this document: Parliament, democracy and juries. Yet by speaking of “liberties”, “customs”, “rights”, “justice”, “the law of the land” and “the common counsel of the land”, Magna Carta came to embrace precisely these things.
So much for happenstance; but there was something else about Magna Carta which was unique and which helped provide the motivating power for extension and development of the rights and freedoms which King John’s original charter first proclaimed. For the Great Charter was not suddenly summoned into being out of nowhere. It drew on and tapped into a Saxon heritage which was grounded in Christianity. The very idea of having King John seal a charter was largely the brainchild of Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, who based the charter sealed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215 on the so-called Coronation Charter which had been issued by Henry I over a century beforehand. That Coronation Charter had promised to abide by the laws of King Edward (meaning Edward the Confessor, the last Saxon king whom Normans recognised as having been a legitimate ruler).
In their turn, these laws of Edward the Confessor incorporated earlier Saxon codes, including those of King Alfred the Great, and so Magna Carta preserves a direct link to Saxon England. Promising to abide by the laws of King Edward effectively meant taking over Saxon laws (and just as important, the Saxon approach to law) lock, stock and barrel. It was a repeat of the promises that William the Conqueror had made in an attempt to legitimise his claim to the English throne and gain Saxon support for his rule.
This was of profound importance for two reasons in particular. Firstly, Saxon legal codes made it clear that kings were subject to the law: by placing the ruler under the same constraints as everyone else, Saxon law carried within itself the promise of rights for the common man and thus not only the seed of what Magna Carta eventually grew to become, but also the germ of democracy itself. Rights for the common man because, if a king was subject to the law, the corollary was that a subject could rely on that same law to protect him in his dealings with the state, so the subject had rights which the state could not override. And the germ of democracy because, as time passed, it became increasingly difficult to deny political rights to subjects who had legal rights – equality in one arguing strongly for equality in the other.
Secondly, the laws of King Alfred began by reciting the Ten Commandments and various other Old Testament laws. By putting God’s law first and man’s law second, they recognised that law is not simply what we choose to make it, but is answerable to a higher moral standard based on and derived from the Bible.
Limits on state power and a corresponding freedom for individuals from arbitrary or excessive use of that power were thus part of English heritage almost from the start, deriving from a mixture of Saxon customs and biblical teaching. That is not to say that the liberties now associated with Magna Carta sprang fully formed into the light: far from it – many were initially present only in the most shadowy form and needed to be developed through a process that was often painful and almost always contentious. The meaning and relevance of the Great Charter was fought over in the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, for example, when the supporters of Parliament specifically relied on it to justify their armed rebellion, but elements of it remained in issue for centuries afterwards. The very existence of a right to free speech was uncertain as late as the reign of Charles II, whose Licensing Act of 1662 prohibited the publishing of any work without government approval, whilst freedom of conscience was to prove a thorny problem for generations afterwards.
The point, however, is that (whatever might be said on the other side of the equation) in England there was always a strong impetus towards freedom – strong enough almost to be called a moral imperative – by virtue of the way that the influence of the Bible was rooted not only in Magna Carta but in the law and in ideas of kingship.
From the moment it was granted, Magna Carta held out the promise of freedom – freedom from arbitrary rule, freedom from oppression, freedom from tyranny. That was the clear implication of clause 39, which spoke of no free man being imprisoned except by the judgment of his peers or due process of law. Those provisions in their turn opened the door to other freedoms such as freedom of conscience, for what greater tyranny could there be than trying to dictate what men and women should think, of seeking to rule the inner life as well as the outer? As soon as the Great Charter set about curtailing arbitrary or disproportionate exercise of royal power, the logic of a society which was not only formed by Christian values but had these embedded at the very heart of its laws and as a central determinant of the relationship between citizen and state made a compelling case for the charter’s original liberties to be extended and then extended again. Arguments in favour of freedom of conscience, for example, drew heavily on the fact that choice was of the essence of Christianity – the freedom to accept Christ or reject him – so that it simply made no sense to try and compel what had to be freely given; and this outlook in turn reinforced the tendency towards freedom, since choice is the enemy of dictatorship. Likewise, Christian belief in free will reinforced ideas of freedom of the individual.