What We Really Need to Know About The Magna Carta

Most of us know something about the Magna Carta. (A linguistic quirk: We Americans call it “the” Magna Carta while the British call it simply “Magna Carta.” Probably from the Latin and not for the reason—whatever it is—our CIA disdains “the” CIA and calls itself just “CIA.”) In loose terms, if we know of the Magna Carta at all, we generally think of it as a legal, written, promise forced at swordpoint from the evil King John in 1215 by courageous barons who were early champions of civil liberties. “The” document that, for English and US history, created democratic rights for all and provided legal, enforceable, limits on the actions of the Crown; a document the Framers to create our own Constitution.

Noble concepts but, as Derek J. Taylor explains in his creative and excellent Magna Carta In 20 Places (Gloucestershire, England: 2015), almost completely wrong. King John wasn’t all that bad, the barons were self-serving thugs out for themselves, the Magna Carta made no guarantees of freedom or justice or (heaven forbid!) democracy and jury trials for all, and it certainly wasn’t a proclamation of universal rights or freedoms. Rather, the Magna Carta wasn’t even considered particularly important at the time and only conferred certain limited, technical, benefits on some of the upper classes. Our Framers did not use it as the basis of our Constitution, although Jefferson and others may have had a passing familiarity with it.

But the Magna Carta, due to many quirks of history which the author explains, often with humorous anecdotes and set in scenes of either history or of today, has indeed become an important foundation of democratic rights.

In law school, if professors referred to the Magna Carta all—and I don’t remember them doing so—it was only in passing. I practiced law in California for over 30 years, rarely saw references to the Magna Carta, discovered it somewhere along the way, and became fascinated by it. I read everything I could find about it, had a framed reproduction in my office (which looked impressive but was in Latin and in small print—I had no idea what it actually said), considered myself knowledgeable about it, and frequently cited it in cases against the state or federal government. But until I read this book—alas, published after I retired from the practice of law—I had no complete idea of the many facets of the Magna Carta. I typically cited the Magna Carta in a general way in cases against the government for the proposition that the government’s frequent arguments that it must be right because, well, it is the government, were wrong. (My argument was against the proposition of ipse dixit: that “X is true” because I [the King] say it is.) I think Taylor would agree that that part of the Magna Carta’s heritage does hold up (although the reason is more that our society has accepted that concept than because the Magna Carta specifically spells it out. It does no such thing). As the author explains, the Magna Carta did, in fact, put some—not many, not in the way we would like to see, but some—limits on the powers of the King. And the Magna Carta’s very existence does indeed stand for the existence of a rule of law—yes, quite limited, but still a rule of law—in which even the King must accept some limitations upon his power.

Beyond that, though, Taylor demonstrates that most of the Magna Carta’s importance falls in the territory of myth. While I knew this in general, I had no idea of the actual specifics of the document. We can’t disregard myth, either on a personal (see Joseph Campbell’s books) or societal level. As Taylor demonstrates in numerous easily-readable examples, “myths have always been important throughout the history of humankind.”

And what a wonderful concept for a book about the Magna Carta and its history: not just to explain the concepts and ideas but to physically go to important places in its history or places where its effects have played out. I wish a tour company would organize a tour around the “20 Places” Taylor visited and discusses in the book. I would be happy to sign up in advance as the first client of such a tour. Actually, as you read the book, you feel you are doing just that—visiting places with a “secret history” related to the Magna Carta, having a trusted and knowledgeable friend in the next seat explaining the importance of those places to you.

I’m so glad I read this book, even though it was after I retired from practicing law and, thus, I was never able to cite it in a legal brief. But I emphasize the book is for general readers, not just lawyers. Anyone interested in the foundations of US or English legal history will enjoy the book. The writing is down to earth, picturesque, and often funny. This book should be required reading in law schools so future lawyers will understand just what the Magna Carta is, what it isn’t and why its enduring legacy is so important. My strongest recommendation and my congratulations to the author!

About johnwagner

John Wagner is a retired lawyer and the author of:
1. Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, a memoir about his human rights work in Peru
2. Baby Boomer Army Brat, a coming-of-age memoir

One thought on “What We Really Need to Know About The Magna Carta

  1. Despite: the book sounds like a good read, but I doubt if I will ever read it since I am currently reading a book I bought 30 years ago. If I am truly diligent, I hope to read 20 year old books before I die. That hasn’t prevented me from thinking in modern terms though. I was in Catalonia recently and witnessed a popular uprising. Despite a massive display of emotional fervor, the response of a strong centralized Spanish government and the indifference of the European Union to local affairs made the revolt fizzle away. Regionalism is no match for the globalization currently taking place {except in America of course). Still, we yearn for a simpler, quieter life, especially this time of year. With that in mind, I hope you and your family have compassionate, joyous time of togetherness this holiday season.

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