A befitting celebration

Wilf StevensonWilf Stevenson on the upcoming 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta

Betty Boothroyd, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, makes a rare intervention in the Lords today when she introduces a debate on Parliament’s plans to celebrate the 800th Anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. 

Baroness Boothroyd told me that she intends to excoriate the House authorities for planning virtually nothing to celebrate this momentous event. And she has summoned the senior elected official in the Lords, the Chair of Committees (Lord Sewel), to hear her ‘call for action’. It should be quite an event.

One of the pleasures of serving in the Lords is the chance to take part in debates of this type. They don’t happen very often, but when they do they are usually brilliant, and you get to research topics very far removed from day to day life. But of course, that is not really true of the Magna Carta. As an excellent briefing from the British Library explains, on 15th June 1215, at Runnymede, ‘a meadow between Windsor and Staines’, King John authorized the sealing of a document which came to be called Magna Carta. 

15th June 2015 is therefore the 800th anniversary of the Charter. It contains approximately 3500 words, and there were perhaps only 20 originals issued. Of these, four survive: two in the British Library, and one each at the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury. None of the four have the King’s seal attached, although there are indications that they were all sealed. It was not, as so often is said, signed. 

Many copies of the 13th century copy of the Charter also survive, most of them to be found in chronicles, cartularies and legal collections of lawyers. One of these, kindly gifted by Labour Peer Parry Mitchell is currently on display in the Royal Gallery. 

Reading the Magna Carta afresh is an interesting experience. Clearly it is a product of its times, and deals with many issues that would not be topical today. It is also less than politically correct in its treatment of those other than Barons and “free men”. And women get short shrift. But, as the British Library notes, it was treasured by England’s political community from its birth because it asserted a fundamental principle, namely that the ruler was subject to the law and could not treat individuals or the realm in an arbitrary, absolutist manner. This principle runs through the Charter as a whole and is encapsulated in its two most famous clauses. 

No free man is to be seized, imprisoned, disseised [deprived of property] or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we [King John] proceed against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice. 

But the other thing that strikes the modern reader is how topical the Magna Carta is. Who would have guessed that it has chapters railing against the power of lobbyists; and the chapter on money lenders could have been used by the Financial Conduct Authority against their modern equivalent, the pay day lenders!

We are told that the Charter has taken on a new lease of life at various times in its history, most notably during the reign of Charles I when it was “frequently appealed to as a bulwark against his arbitrary rule”. It influenced the founding fathers of the American constitution. It is frequently cited in Britain’s current political discourse. Chapters 39 and 40 are still on the statute book of the UK today. 

The Magna Carta is rightly regarded as one of the key documents in world constitutional history. In her speech today, Baroness Boothroyd will call for one of the original copies to be lent by the British Library for permanent display in Parliament. She will make her arguments in her inimitable style, and we on the Labour benches will be supporting her.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords

Published 7th November 2013

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