Tracing the origins of Magna Carta.

This book is a tremendous work of legal scholarship setting Magna Carta in its historical context. It was a legal document drafted by lawyers, ultimately for lawyers. The document is not about democracy but the rule of law.

Magna Carta comes from a time of unpopular foreign wars. England was losing influence in Europe. Continental institutions threatened traditionally powerful English organisations. There were new big businesses in cities and towns that were not easy to tax.

It is surprising that a feudal treaty between a group of powerful nobles concerned with self-interest ended up as a guarantee of rights for the whole population. King John agreed to it to get himself out of trouble.

The terms of the document deal with the rights of women, the religious majority, foreign laws, taxation of big business, minorities and the way cities are ruled. There are interesting legal terms like ‘murdrum’ and ‘scutage’ and useful rules about weirs on rivers. Something for everyone. As a peace treaty Magna Carta was unsuccessful, but the concept of the rule of law was enshrined. The law applies to everyone.

There were attempts to cancel the document. The Pope was alarmed by the terms of Magna Carta, and on 24 August 1215 he described it as ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people’, declaring the charter ‘null and void of all validity for ever’.  

Authors: Anthony Arlidge and Igor Judge

Publisher: Hart Publishing (£25)

John died in 1216, leaving a regency government under the child Henry III. That year a revised version of Magna Carta was issued, and other versions were issued later in the 13th century. The 1225 version became a statute in 1297. That version of Magna Carta had been explicitly granted in return for a payment of tax by the whole kingdom. This led to the first summons of a parliament in 1265, to approve the granting of taxation.

The requirement for parliament to consent to taxation meant the King’s powers were limited. The rest is history.

Magna Carta fell out of favour in Tudor times when royal power was at its height, but by the 17th century opponents of King Charles I used it to regulate the arbitrary use of royal authority. It was highly influential in the constitutional documents of the US and in other basic rights documents across the world.

The book has interesting historical background written by experienced and knowledgeable lawyers. It is full of detail, including biographical information about the individuals involved.

David Pickup is a partner at Aylesbury-based Pickup & Scott