Magna Carta, radicalism and reform
William Hague MP and Professor Linda Colley discuss how Magna Carta inspired reformers, radicals and revolutionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Magna Carta was used by a whole range of reformers, radicals and revolutionaries in the 18th and 19th century because it contained important ideas for them and had previously been agreed by a king of England. This was something they could refer back to that legitimised in some ways what they were saying and arguing. So, parliamentary reformers, sometimes even revolutionaries, Americans fighting for independence, all of them could look to Magna Carta for some support or inspiration.
A lot of work on Magna Carta has focused very much on the 17th century, the 17th century rediscovery of Magna Carta, not least in connection with the civil war. But it’s arguable that it’s in the 18th century that Magna Carta really acquires much more of a popular edge, very largely because of the exponential growth of print culture, which really gets started in the 1690s and grows and grows and grows, and it’s not just books and pamphlets, increasingly it’s newspapers, it’s broadsheets, it’s plays, and the postal system is zooming away too, particularly after 1750.
For 19th-century reformers, the Chartist movement came along and it seemed that they adopted a charter, a six-point charter, because this was their new form of Magna Carta, of the Great Charter. This was of course a much more democratic document than the original one, calling for universal suffrage, for annual parliaments, and it enjoyed wide popular interest and support, but it was a powerful thing for them that they could claim to be acting in a long tradition.
One of the very useful ways that Magna Carta caters to some radicals is that it allows them to clothe themselves in patriotism. They can say, ‘Look, what we’re asking for is not anything disruptive or iconoclastic, because look at Magna Carta, this shows the pursuit of liberty is intrinsic to what this nation is about.’
In a way, Magna Carta is commemorated in the Houses of Parliament by the existence of these Houses of Parliament. Magna Carta didn’t refer to a Parliament, but it did require a meeting to be held for taxation to be levied rather than for the king to be able to levy it himself, and the power of Parliament, the role of Parliament has derived from that, and the most vigorous debates in here often remain the level and nature of taxation in the country.
Narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, this animation takes you back to medieval England to explore the tyranny of King John, the frustrations of the barons and the significance of the charter’s original clauses. - video
Over the centuries Magna Carta has influenced kings and statesmen, lawyers and lawmakers, prisoners, Chartists and Suffragettes. But how did this old piece of parchment become such a powerful symbol of our rights and freedoms? Narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, this animation explores Magna Carta’s 800 year legacy. - video
Professor Justin Champion and Geoffrey Robertson QC discuss the reinvention of Magna Carta in the 17th century and its use against the Stuart kings. They explore Magna Carta as a legal document, its use as a symbol against tyranny, and the role of Sir Edward Coke. - video
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.
Stretching from 979 to 2015, this simple timeline charts the key events leading up to the declaration of Magna Carta in 1215, and explores the legacy of the document up to the present day.
What is Magna Carta. Why was it created? What does it say, and why has it become one of the most celebrated documents in history?
A number of Magna Carta’s core principles are still fundamental to English law, but the majority of the charter’s clauses in 1215 dealt with specific medieval rights and customs. Here Professor Nicholas Vincent provides an overview of the charter’s original clauses.