Properly, a myth is:
A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.
This being England, we have to reinvent, recycle, relaunch our national myths serially. Something happens once, it is an occasion; we then have a celebration, and after that it’s a regular tradition. We’re stuck with that process, else the tourists pass us by for somewhere with more “history”.
This year’s come-all-ye is Magna Carta.
There will be a full-on bun-fight at Runnymede on 15th June to endorse the whole she-bang.
And it’s all load of hooey.
There was a document sealed at Runnymede that day: it was the list of demands by the rebels. So it is properly the Articles of the Barons, which they had cobbled together at Bury St Edmunds the previous year. Not surprisingly, it is largely a narrow and self-interested agenda, and certainly nothing to hail as the root of “our freedoms”.
The Archbishop, Stephen Langton, took this away, and compared it with the Charter of Liberties which was Henry I Beauclerc’s declaration of what he thought were his obligations. Langton then codified a document, had it engrossed, and it was then sealed by the King and his rebels at Windsor on 19th June.
Even as a peace treaty between king and his barons, it fell apart when Pope Innocent III, as King John’s feudal overlord (a claim John was happy to accept for the nonce), promptly abrogated it.
The Charter’s afterlife
This is far more interesting than the events of 1215.
First of all, the Charter was resurrected by William Marshall, the power in the land as guardian of the ten-year-old Henry III. Successive re-writes in 1216 and 1217 made further concessions to the insurgent barons. Since, at the same time, another Charter “of the Forests” was being endorsed, we got the magna carta libertatum, “the great charter of liberties”, though the “liberties” were mainly to be taken and exploited by the feudal lords.
In 1225 the successors to William Marshall, in the name of King Henry, not quite come of age, needed funds to defend the remaining territory in Poitou and Gascony. In exchange for £40,000 of agreed taxation, Henry III re-issued both the Charter of 1217 and the Charter of the Forests of his “own spontaneous and free will”.
Again in 1253, with the main feudal conflicts still bubbling, Henry III had to endorse the Charters again, as a way of accessing funds. By then the barons were pushing their luck, and in 1258 the Simon de Montfort faction seized power, and pressed for yet more royal concessions in the Provisions of Oxford. If anything, this is the basis of the Common Law of England. The Provisions would also be renounced by the King, prompting the Second Baron’s War, which finally put the baronage back in its box.
And that would be the big end of it, except Magna Carta became a meme for wannabe “libertarians” (a term, and originally a derisory one, invented by William Belsham in — significantly — 1789). In particular it was something of a rallying-cry for the Parliamentarian faction against the early Stuart kings. If one individual is held responsible for this resuscitation, it is Sir Edward Coke (above):
The principle that taxes were only to be granted in Parliament was not simply an accepted convention but was enshrined in law, for by an Act of 1352, which Coke described as ‘worthy to be writ in letters of gold’, the king was expressly forbidden to raise loans against the wishes of his subjects, as this would infringe their liberties and turn them into slaves. These liberties were protected by Magna Carta, and by an Act of 1370, which declared that all laws contrary to Magna Carta were void.
This, clearly, is not merely native Norfolk cussedness, but a bit of educated self-interest. [There is, by the way, a neat summary of Coke here.]
However, out of all this came the Petition of Right of 1628. Although the Petition of Right claims to derive from early precedents, and — see Clause III — specifically from Magna Carta, it is historically a far more significant, if less dramatic document.