This Monday coming marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, a peace treaty between a comically cowardly drunken king and his leading barons. It mainly focused on financial disputes but it nonetheless came to become ‘the Bible of the English Constitution’, in William Pitt the Elder put it.
Although there is some understandable scepticism about the way that Magna Carta was romanticized by 17th century opponents of the Stuart monarchs, and the motives of the barons were almost entirely selfish, its four surviving clauses (sometimes counted as 3, as 39 and 40 were merged into one in the definitive 1297 reissue) still hold enormous weight, legally, culturally and emotionally.
But though Clause 39 – “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” – is well-known to educated people, it is less commonly recalled that Clause 1 states “that the English Church is to be free, and to have its full rights and its liberties intact”.
More importantly, the Christian origins and influence of the Great Charter are mostly ignored, a point raised in a new Theos report by Thomas Andrew, The Church and the Charter: Christianity and the Forgotten Roots of Magna Carta.
In particular Andrew addresses the unsung hero of Magna Carta, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, who played a huge part in drawing up the treaty and implementing it.
Langton was a strange and unusual choice for the role; he was the former tutor to Pope Alexander III, and was a rather otherworldly scholar who wrote page upon page of totally impenetrable commentary on the Bible. However, there was a theme in his later writing, much of which seemed to focus on the bad kings of the Old Testament who broke God’s law and who therefore had terrible things done to them. Biblical kings, he wrote, had a book of laws written down by the priests; today’s kings though ignore the advice of priests and rule without restraint. The archbishop gave lectures in which he attacked these modern rulers who tax not out of necessity but greed and vanity, and where he said kingship was a punishment to mankind. To a king as paranoid as John it would have been clear what he was getting at. Langton also attacked “princes who flee from lengthy sermons”, which would certainly apply to King John, who was so openly bored by church he once sent three notes to a bishop presiding over Mass to hurry up so he could have lunch. (On another occasion, reminscent of Edmund Blackadder, John took out a gold coin at collection time, fiddled with it, and then ostentatiously put it back in his purse.)
Archbishop Langton was perhaps intellectually the most important figure behind Magna Carta, and although he may have not have written it (no one knows exactly who, although it was certainly a collaboration), according to one chronicler he played a big part in suggesting the idea by raising the subject of Henry I’s 1100 coronation charter, a series of promises made by the Norman king which influenced the men of 1215.
More significant, though, as Andrew states, was the Christian intellectual tradition that led to the lasting ideas within Magna Carta, which is ignored today:
“A more nuanced position recognises that the ideas contained within the Magna Carta are part of a developing intellectual tradition. They did not emerge ex nihilo, but arose as an expression of pre-existing thought, given shape and substance in the political demands of the moment. And a key aspect of that intellectual tradition is the contribution of the Christian Church and Christian theology.
“No account of the Magna Carta can be complete without reference to the Church. Indeed, given the prominence placed on the principle of ecclesiastical liberty within the text, no account of the Magna Carta should even begin without acknowledging the Church’s role in its formation. And yet popular thinking seems all too willing to ignore it altogether. While academic scholarship has produced some notable studies into the theological background of the Archbishop of Canterbury, material aimed at the general public has largely failed to recognise the contribution of Christian theology or the Church in the formation of the Magna Carta. When the British Library ran a series of events exploring the 800 year-old roots of ‘Britain’s struggle for freedom and contribution of the Church was all but ignored. And as the professor of political science Cary Nederman points out, while commentators will often pay lip service to the principles of ecclesial liberty enshrined in the first clause of the Magna Carta, this is generally done with the attitude of someone fulfilling a formal requirement, before they can move on to the meatier parts of the text.”
To miss the role played by the Church is to “miss a crucial part of the Magna Carta’s story”, he argues. “This is particularly true of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was instrumental not only in negotiating the Charter of 1215, but also in the important reissue of 1225 under Henry III, which confirmed the Magna Carta’s place in history. Perhaps more important than this, however, is that a failure to acknowledge the Christian theological context within which the Magna Carta arose is to miss out on an understanding of some of the most important roots of our political and intellectual heritage.”
The booklet also contains a foreword by Larry Siedentop, the author of Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, which is an essential study of how individualism and freedom have their roots in St Paul. I would say that everyone should be forced to read this book, but I suppose that would go against the whole point of it.
As Siedentrop points out: “The understanding of justice itself began to be more closely associated with the assumption of moral equality. For a strong case can be made that the earliest form of natural rights theory was the work of canon lawyers from the 12th to the 14th century – lawyers who transformed the idea of natural law inherited from the ancient world, by giving it a far more individualist cast. In their hands, ‘aristocratic’ liberty, liberty understood as personal and corporate privileges, began to give way to a more ‘democratic’ conception of liberty.
“Today there is a widespread embarrassment about confronting the role of the Christian church in the formation of the Western world. The Western debt to ancient Greece and Rome is far more likely to be emphasized than its debt to Christian moral thought.”
Of course this is not an isolated incident; the eradication of the Church’s influence on Magna Carta is part of a wider cultural amnesia in which the Christian origins of so many ideas we now assume to be universal have been forgotten. In that sense Christianity has rather been a victim of its own success.