Radicalism and suffrage

Dr Alexander Lock discusses Magna Carta’s relationship to parliamentary reform and to radicals fighting oppressive government. Find out how this medieval peace settlement was reinvented as a potent symbol of liberty and justice.

William Hague MP and Professor Linda Colley discuss how Magna Carta inspired reformers, radicals and revolutionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Magna Carta was invoked repeatedly across Great Britain and its growing Empire. In these international contexts Magna Carta was raised in relation to trial by jury and the jurisdiction of English law; to challenge transportation and naval impressment; and to contest the regulation of overseas trade. Back at home in Great Britain, Magna Carta was used just as frequently by contemporaries contesting domestic issues relating to increasing taxation; the Jacobite rebellions; and press censorship. Yet in all these examples Magna Carta was utilised less as a legal instrument than as a slogan calculated to stir patriotic emotions. In almost all cases it was used to mobilise public support for a given cause by lending it the appearance of political legitimacy.

But of all of its invocations in the period, Magna Carta became a symbol most closely associated with agitation for parliamentary reform. Here again, its meaning remained malleable and it was used both by those seeking reform and those opposing it. Since the 17th century, Magna Carta had come to represent a peculiarly ‘English’ liberty that underpinned the unwritten — and, to a large extent, imaginary — ‘ancient’ constitution. In the 18th and early 19th centuries these ideas were similarly embraced by those debating the merits of reform. Loyalist propagandists claimed that only a strong monarch and elite Parliament could protect the ‘ancient’ constitution and principles of 1215, while their radical opponents argued that the undemocratic power of the monarchy and Parliament violated the people’s ‘ancient’ rights declared in Magna Carta. Yet, while all sides represented Magna Carta for differing purposes in their propaganda, the iconography remained the same: the legitimate political actors defended the Charter while the illegitimate desecrated it.

Radical Newspaper: The North Briton no. 45

Radical Newspaper: The North Briton no. 45

This appendix of The North Briton no.45, published by radical politician and newspaper editor John Wilkes in 1769, contains a detailed account of Wilkes’s prosecution for illegally criticising King George III. Wilkes invoked Magna Carta in his defence.

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Portrait of John Wilkes MP

Portrait of John Wilkes MP

This portrait of John Wilkes was used in numerous prints and other propaganda.

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Copyright: © John Wilkes 1727-97 M.P., oil painting by Robert Edge Pine, 1768 © Palace of Westminster Collection,WOA 2935

John Wilkes

Although Magna Carta had sometimes been invoked in the 18th century, it was the politician and newspaper editor John Wilkes (1725-97) who most successfully reasserted the document as a powerful symbol of liberty and justice. Following his arrest in 1763 for publishing a newspaper article that seditiously libelled King George III (r.1760–1820) and his government, Wilkes invoked Magna Carta to represent himself as a wronged man and to marshal public opinion in his favour. In a series of events between 1763 and 1768 — which saw Wilkes arrested for libel, momentarily released, expelled from Parliament, shot in a duel, exiled to France, outlawed, re-imprisoned, and elected to Parliament from his prison cell — Wilkes shamelessly exploited the iconography of Magna Carta to achieve widespread, and occasionally violent, public support. As a newspaper editor, Wilkes was a master self-publicist and propagandist. He used the symbolism of the Great Charter in the press as a shorthand slogan for the ancient liberties he was purportedly defending and that the government was violating by arresting journalists, such as himself, on spurious grounds. Such depictions of Wilkes with Magna Carta were a great success, and enterprising businessmen further enhanced the association of Wilkes with the Great Charter by producing porcelain figurines and teapots depicting him with the Charter. The popularity of Wilkes and the extent to which he was represented with Magna Carta helped reinforce it as a slogan for freedom and justice in opposition to oppressive government.

Porcelain figure of John Wilkes, holding the Bill of Rights and a scroll inscribed ‘Magna Carta’

Porcelain figure of John Wilkes, holding the Bill of Rights and a scroll inscribed ‘Magna Carta’

Porcelain figures and other objects depicting Wilkes were used as propaganda to promote the radical politician’s cause.

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Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

Wedgwood teapot showing John Wilkes holding Magna Charta

Wedgwood earthenware teapot designed by Thomas Billinge showing John Wilkes holding Magna Charta

Manufactured by Josiah Wedgwood, founder of one of the 18th century’s most prestigious potteries, this teapot was created to celebrate John Wilkes becoming Lord Mayor of London in 1774.

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Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum

Arthur Beardmore

Wilkes was by no means the only one to be associated in this way with Magna Carta in the late 18th century. His friend, the newspaper editor Arthur Beardmore (d. 1771), was inspired by the Wilkes scandal to challenge the government, because he too had been arrested for publishing a seditious libel against the King’s mother. Upon winning his case in 1764, Beardmore had a portrait made celebrating the fact, depicting him teaching his son Magna Carta at the moment of his arrest. Here the use of Magna Carta represented English justice and liberty as a true defence against arbitrary government. The portrait was painted by Robert Edge Pine (1730-88), an artist sympathetic to the Wilkite cause and the son of John Pine, who had produced the first detailed engraving of Magna Carta in 1733. For all these men, Magna Carta was an important symbol that could be used against the monarch and Parliament in defence of the rights of the subject. Pine would go on to paint Wilkes with Magna Carta, and these portraits of Beardmore and Wilkes were much reproduced in the 18th century. The images were immensely popular, inspiring parodies and encouraging other radical contemporaries in England and the American colonies to exploit the image of Magna Carta for their own political purposes.

Print of Arthur Beardmore, at the moment of his arrest, teaching his son Magna Carta

Print of 'Arthur Beardmore Common-Council Man of the City of London, Teaching his Son Magna Carta'

In 1762 lawyer and journalist, Arthur Beardmore, was arrested for publishing a seditious libel against the mother of King George III. Subsequently, he successfully sued the government for unlawful arrest. This commemorative print portrays him at the moment of his arrest, ‘teaching his Son Magna Charta’.

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Copyright: © Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Parody print of Arthur Beardmore: Dick Swift teaching his son the Commandments

Print of 'Dick Swift Thieftaker of the City of London Teaching his Son the Commandments'

This etching depicts convicted criminal Dick Swift teaching his son the Ten Commandments. The image parodies James Watson’s print of Arthur Beardmore (1765), by poking fun at those who uncritically invoked Magna Carta in their defence.

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Copyright: © Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Magna Carta memorabilia

In a period dominated by revolutions and agitation for parliamentary reform, it is unsurprising that depictions of Magna Carta, as a symbol of liberty, proliferated in late 18th and early 19th-century Britain. As the industrial revolution gathered pace, representations of Magna Carta appeared on an ever increasing variety of items for a growing pool of consumers. The range of items it appeared on was as broad as the ideals it was engaged to defend, and included games, prints, porcelain, metal wares and fabrics. Magna Carta was exploited by the politician Charles James Fox (1749-1806) and his Whig supporters when they proposed erecting a column at Runnymede to celebrate the centenary of the Glorious Revolution; it was lionised in metal tokens by the political reformers of the London Corresponding Society at their trials for high treason in 1794; and it was invoked in colourful prints to challenge the Suspension of Habeas Corpus Act in 1817 (a particularly repressive measure used to imprison without trial anyone suspected of subverting the government).

Design for a column with a statue of William III intended to be erected at Runnymede

Design for a column with a statue of William III intended to be erected at Runnymede

This is a design for a new column, proposed by politician Charles James Fox, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. Fox suggested that the column should be constructed at Runnymede.

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Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

Sir Francis Burdett

Perhaps the man who most successfully exploited the iconography of Magna Carta in the early 19th century was the radical politician Sir Francis Burdett (1770-1844). Throughout his career, Burdett advocated parliamentary reform, holding a deep attachment to the idea of England’s ‘ancient constitution’ and rights as outlined in the Great Charter. For Burdett, these rights were being undermined by a corrupt and unrepresentative Parliament, in need of reform. In 1810 Burdett was incarcerated in the Tower of London for publicly criticising what he saw as the unfair imprisonment by the House of Commons of another London radical, John Gale Jones (1769-1838), who had publicly discussed closed parliamentary proceedings. Upon his imprisonment, Burdett and his supporters drew heavily on the symbolism of Magna Carta to great popular success. Just as with Wilkes fifty years earlier, Burdett was represented with Magna Carta in the press, in popular prints and portraits, and on porcelain. As with Beardmore, Francis Burdett was also portrayed in popular print culture teaching his son Magna Carta at the moment of arrest. Such propaganda implied that Burdett’s imprisonment was contrary to Magna Carta, and that the ‘ancient’ rights of Englishmen were being undermined by an unrepresentative Parliament.

Satirical print of 'A New Cure for Jackobinism or A Peep in the Tower'

Satirical print of 'A New Cure for Jackobinism or A Peep in the Tower'

This print depicts Sir Francis Burdett as a defender of English liberty. Burdett had been imprisoned in the Tower of London for criticising the prosecution of orator John Gales Jones who discussed closed parliamentary proceedings in public.

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Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

Print of Sir Francis Burdett MP

Print of Sir Francis Burdett MP

In this etching, Francis Burdett — surrounded by weighty legal tomes — holds out ‘Magna Charta’ to the viewer. In the background the Tower of London looms large, as a reminder of Burdett ‘s imprisonment and of where others risked being sent if the principles of the Great Charter were forgotten.

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Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum

Porcelain jug depicting Francis Burdett

Porcelain jug depicting Francis Burdett

This porcelain jug, made to commemorate the imprisonment of Sir Francis Burdett, depicts Burdett holding out ‘Magna Charta’, and extols him ‘for firmly & disinterestedly asserting the legal rights of the British people’.

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Copyright: © People’s History Museum NMLH 1995/91/5

Magna Carta and parliamentary reform

Ten years later, Magna Carta was used to challenge Parliament, which some people believed was in serious need of reform. The year 1820 saw appeal made to Magna Carta at the trial of the Cato Street conspirators, who had plotted to murder the entire British Cabinet. Sentenced to death for committing high treason, one of their number, William Davidson, used Magna Carta to argue that they were acting for the good of the country. For Davidson, direct violent action was condoned by Magna Carta’s clause 61 —justifying armed retaliation if the clauses of the Charter were ignored — as a legitimate response to a tyrannical government. The same year also saw Magna Carta invoked by radical political reformers to challenge the ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline (r.1820-21), who King George IV (r.1820–30) was trying to divorce by Act of Parliament. The trial was represented in the popular press as an example of the corrupt political establishment ill using a defenceless woman.

An Authentic History of the Cato-Street Conspiracy

An Authentic History of the Cato-Street Conspiracy

William Davidson, who was arrested for his involvement in the Cato Street Conspiracy (1820), invoked Magna Carta in his defence, comparing the conspirators to the 25 barons nominated in clause 61 to uphold Magna Carta in 1215.

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Axe created for the execution of the Cato Street conspiracy ringleaders

Axe created for the execution of the Cato Street conspiracy ringleaders

This axe was made specifically for the execution of the Cato Street conspirators in 1820. In fact, the axe was never used, as the conspirators’ heads were instead removed by a barber-surgeon who used a surgical knife.

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Copyright: © Museum of London

Political caricature of Queen Caroline 'Britain's Best Hope, England's Sheet Anchor'

Political caricature of Queen Caroline 'Britain's Best Hope, England's Sheet Anchor'

Magna Carta was invoked by political reformers during the ‘trial of Queen Caroline’ in 1820. This image depicts the Queen leaning against an anchor composed of Magna Carta, The People and the Bill of Rights.

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Copyright: © Queen Caroline. Britain's best Hope England's Sheet Anchor, printing ink by J. Fairburn, 1820 © Palace of Westminster Collection, WOA 2935

The Queen and Magna Charta; or that thing that John signed

The Queen and Magna Charta; or that thing that John signed

Supporting Queen Caroline, this book aligned defending Queen Caroline with the importance of defending the ancient rights established by Magna Carta.

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So powerful were these appeals to Magna Carta that a strong connection was created in the popular imagination between the iconography of the Great Charter and parliamentary reform. Indeed, it was so strong that when the first Parliamentary Reform Act was passed in 1832 it was widely represented as a new Magna Carta for the people. Early editions of the Act were explicitly described as ‘The Great Charter of 1832’ and popular ceramics representing the Lord Chancellor holding the Act pronounced it a ‘Second Magna Charta’. However, the Great Reform Act was but the first in a series of legislative reforms that paved the way to universal suffrage in 1928, and in the agitation for these reforms Magna Carta continued to be used as a symbol of basic political rights. Most prominent in this respect was its use by the Chartists, a mass working-class movement that agitated for democratic reforms between 1838 and 1858.

The Great Charter of 1832

The Great Charter of 1832

This book, entitled The Great Charter of 1832, presents the Great Reform Act of the same year as another Magna Carta. In the introduction, the author claims that Magna Carta was a milestone in the fight for fairer parliamentary representation.

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Chartism took its name from the People’s Charter, which petitioned for parliamentary reform in six areas, including the need for secret ballots, the payment of MPs, and the right for all adult males to have the vote. Their choice of the word ‘Charter’ was significant and drew consciously on the powerful symbolism of Magna Carta as the foundation of English liberties which the People’s Charter would secure for working men. Ultimately, the Chartists failed to achieve reform, but in the decades that followed Magna Carta was invoked by parliamentary reformers from the eccentric Magna Charta Association in the 1870s to the suffragettes in the early twentieth century.

The People’s Charter

The People’s Charter

The Chartist movement took its name from this pamphlet, which was first published by the London Working Men’s Association in May 1838. Unlike Magna Carta, which secured the barons’ liberties, The People’s Charter sought to win liberties for ordinary working men.

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Poster for public meeting for the People's Charter

Poster for public meeting for the Peoples Charter

This colourful poster, dating from the early days of the Chartist movement, advertises a great public meeting to be held on the Sands at Carlisle on 21 May 1839. Posters like this were used to mobilise popular support in favour of political reform.

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Copyright: © National Archives

Ironically, all these appeals to Magna Carta — from the Chartists to the suffragettes — were made at precisely the same time that the vast majority of clauses from the Great Charter were being repealed by Parliament (between 1828 and 1969). That it was losing its force in law, however, seemed to matter very little to those who called on it for support. Since the early 18th century, the specific legal provisions of Magna Carta had been little engaged with by those who invoked it, but was rather used as a powerful symbol of liberty and legitimate political rights. Throughout this period, it was a potent symbol imbued with hundreds of years of meaning and myth, and it was this legacy, rather than its legal status, that gave Magna Carta such enormous persuasive power.

Cartoon captioned 'Magna Carta' in publication 'Votes for Women'

Cartoon captioned 'Magna Carta' in publication Votes for women

Votes for Women was the official newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which campaigned for women’s suffrage in Britain. This 1911 issue depicts the barons presenting Magna Carta to King John; while an accompanying essay outlines ‘How Militant Methods Won the Great Charter’

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Article on Magna Carta and women from journal The Englishwoman

Article on Magna Carta and women from journal The Englishwoman

In 1915, to coincide with Magna Carta’s 700th anniversary, the suffragette campaigner, Helena Normanton (d. 1957), published this essay on ‘Magna Carta and Women’. In it she argued that the disenfranchisement of women contravened Magna Carta’s famous clauses 39 and 40.

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  • Alex Lock
  • Alexander Lock researched the post-medieval legacy of Magna Carta for the British Library’s major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (13 March–1 September 2015). His particular area of expertise focuses on 18th-century British political, religious and economic history, and he has recently completed an AHRC funded research project on the life and networks of the English Catholic baronet Sir Thomas Gascoigne (1745-1810) due to be published by Boydell and Brewer in 2015.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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