52 Books Challenge: #6 Magna Carta; The True Story


I first gazed upon an “original copy” of the Magna Carta about 10 years ago in Salisbury Cathedral. Housed in a special room and enclosed in a large glass case its size and look bears no resemblance to the power and influence this document has had on world history over 800 years. I also visited the British Museum in 2015 for a special Magna Carta exhibition celebrating the 800th year of its creation. As far as I know there are 4 surviving copies in England at Salisbury, Lincoln, Durham and the British Museum.

In very recent times, the validity of the United Kingdom relying on this ancient document as a substitute for a modern written constitution has been questioned, especially in relation to recent behaviours of many politicians regarding the Brexit Referendum, and some judgements of our Supreme Court. It has set me thinking where I personally stand on this, and whether the nature of our society is such that we are at risk of further political and legal machinations where “the rule of precedent” can be manipulated at will. It is this that enticed me to read David Starkey’s Magna Carta, The True Story Behind The Charter.

The book ends its final chapter with these words about the Constitution of the United States of America showing the influence of this scrap of parchment.
“The text of Magna Carta is incorporated in extenso into the constitutions of seventeen of the fifty US States; a copy of the Charter is displayed alongside the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the Great Hall of the Archives in Washington and another in the basement of the Rotunda of the Capital; while the granting of the Charter is represented in relief on the bronze doors of the Supreme Court, whose Justices have cited the Charter itself over four hundred times in their judgments. In short, the Charter lives in America. Or at least it has acquired a new lease of life.”
However, David Starkey in his book shows that across a 10 year period from 1215 to 1225, there was more than one version of Magna Carta that was begun by King John at Runnymede, and finalised by his son King Henry III. As far as I can work out this was the third version, the first in 1215 being revolutionary and coercive, the second in 1216 being more “centrist” to use the word of the author, and the version of 1225 adding new clauses and removing old ones that showed a high degree of coercion.

“In less than half a century and within the lifetime of a single king, Magna Carta had metamorphosed from a revolutionary and incendiary tract into a solemn text, sanctified and honoured and paraded in the theatre of royal and ecclesiastical ceremony. It was not an outcome that anyone in 1215 could have foreseen.”

The book describes well the various stages of the development of the Magna Carta and the main characters involved, principally the two kings, John then his son Henry, but also Stephen Langton and William Marshall the chief advisors to each king respectively. One a scheming cleric, the other a highly principled and chivalrous knight.
What I was not aware of was that during the final years of King Johns life he had to fight a civil war in England. The 25 Barons who held a great deal of power after Runnymede in 1215 decided to depose King John and offered the crown to Prince Louis, the eldest son of Philip Augustus of France. Eventually Louis raised an army and invaded England. It was during this protracted war that King John died, not in battle but of dysentery in the east of England in October 2016. It was John’s young son Henry who eventually defeated Louis via the strategy of William Marshall and which led to securing the crown and the strengthening of a new version of Magna Carta. The power of the Barons was lost for good.
This was a very easy book to read and I finished it in a couple of evenings. David Starkey is an eminent historian specialising in Tudor history and constitutional issues. He has been very vocal during the Brexit farce in parliament, not that you would know it because the mainstream media don’t want him heard. Which brings me back to my early question as to whether the United Kingdom should have a written constitution. Having pondered it for three years and listened to David Starkey on YouTube and in podcasts, he and I agree …… yes, we should now have a written constitution!

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