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.

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