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15th August 2018
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Villainy, Treachery and Liberty
On October 2nd, the Society marked the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta with an illustrated talk by journalist, historian and Stow resident Derek Taylor
The evening began with a jolt
“Is Magna Carta a fraud?” asked speaker Derek Taylor. “A swindle? Not what it’s cracked up to be?”
He explained that the document King John was forced by his barons to agree in 1215 was not such a beacon of justice after all. It in fact did nothing to improve the legal rights of 75% of the male population who remained agricultural slaves. And worse - it actually cut back the limited rights that women possessed.
There were mutterings among the 80 strong audience in St Edwards Hall that maybe we were all wasting our time here this evening. But before we could sneak off home to watch the rugby World Cup instead, Derek reassured us that the birth of Magna Carta was far from the end of the story. It had an 800 year life. Magna Carta was not fixed at birth, it changed over the centuries to become a champion.
But its story has become shrouded in myth and misunderstanding.
Take King John, commonly thought of as an unredeemed tyrant. For the next few minutes the audience were turned into a jury with John in the dock. The case for the prosecution was convincing. How could this monarch be innocent when he murdered his 15 year old nephew Arthur, imposed crippling taxes on his subjects, and out of laziness and cowardice lost almost the whole of the crown’s continental territories?
The jury gave him a thumbs down and began to boo - or would have if the case for the defence had not come on fast. Yes, he murdered his nephew, but the boy was no innocent. He was leading an army to overthrow John, and rulers who showed weakness – in fact failed to be brutal – soon perished in the Middle Ages.
The verdict in the end was that John wasn’t the sort of chap you’d want to sit next to a dinner party. But he was no pantomime villain, and no saint either. His character was complicated. What the barons hated about him was his unpredictability.
Derek went on to dispel some misconceptions about the barons too. They weren’t some early version of civil rights campaigners. Only a small minority of the noble families joined the rebellion against King John, and were led by a malevolent self-serving thug, Robert Fitzwalter. And an equal number of barons took up arms to support the king. The royalist commander was William Marshall, an extraordinary warrior, who unhorsed 500 knights in tournaments – a much bloodier sport than we often imagine.
And so to Magna Carta itself. It’s true that read literally, it looks like a case of upper class men looking after their own interests. But the Great Charter contains – hidden among the medieval jargon – examples of two important principles: that the king must obey the law, and that arbitrary punishment is wrong
When John died prematurely, he was succeeded by his nine-year old son Henry III. Marshall became regent and eased the transition to the new rule by reissuing Magna Carta. It quelled the opposition and a pattern was set. The Great Charter was reissued with changes more than 55 times whenever a king needed to make concessions in order to try and get his own way.
We then heard how Magna Carta justified the beheading of King Charles I, how it was exported to the new American colonies during the seventeenth century, and inspired the American Bill of Rights, which with significant updating, quoted Magna Carta:
No person shall be deprived of life,
liberty or property
without due process of law.
Today Magna Carta is revered across the world as the watchword of ordinary people fighting for justice and freedom from oppression. And Derek concluded by telling us, “The Great Charter teaches that those who govern us are subject to the law like the rest of us. And it is not permitted for them to punish us – nor to harm us in any way – except according to the law of the land.”
St Edward’s Hall erupted with applause – as much for this old English document itself as for the evening’s speaker.
Derek Taylor's book, Magna Carta in 20 Places was published by The History Press in May 2015, and is available from the Borzoi Bookshop in Stow, from all booksellers in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia, or from Amazon worldwide.
Contact Derek directly with any comments on firstname.lastname@example.org
A nineteenth century image of the alleged killing by King John of his nephew Arthur
A contemporary illustration of William Marshall unhorsing one of his 500 victims during a tournament.
Magna Carta's reach across the world today