Liberty Matters

Magna Carta’s Resonance

The conversation with my colleagues about the meaning and legacies of Magna Carta has consistently returned my thoughts to the question of reception. The Magna Carta is possibly a unique example of a continuous but profoundly contested commemorative tradition: arguably the British monarchy may be another example, but it has neither the global appeal nor the constitutional significance. I was reminded reading and thinking about Richard’s last reflection of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma: are the principles we can draw from Magna Carta good because they are philosophically correct or because they were uttered and confirmed in the Magna Carta and therefore wield a sort of historical prescription? A tricky question: indeed if the principles are independently “good” what does the Magna Carta moment bring to them other than the excuse to return to them on significant historical anniversaries?
One of our collective themes has discussed the imaginative ways in which later minds, groups in specific moments for deliberate purposes, have been able to find something valuable – especially in the legal principles and language, which repay unfolding in powerful ways. I’ve touched on some of the ways in which visual culture and graphic satire used and reused images of liberty and Magna Carta to stigmatize or valorize contemporary figures or policies.
There have been powerful literary responses too – stirring verse from Kipling, Tennyson, and before them Mark Akenside 1720-1770, who according to Samuel Johnson had an “outrageous zeal for liberty.” Akenside prepared a short verse for a “Column at Runnymede”:
Thou, who the verdant plain dost traverse here While Thames among his willows from thy view Retires; O stranger, stay thee, and the scene Around contemplate well. This is the place Where England's ancient barons, clad in arms And stern with conquest, from their tyrant king (Then rendered tame) did challenge and secure The charter of thy freedom. Pass not on Till thou hast blest their memory, and paid Those thanks which God appointed the reward Of public virtue. And if chance thy home Salute thee with a father's honour'd name, Go, call thy sons: instruct them what a debt They owe their ancestors; and make them swear To pay it, by transmitting down entire Those sacred rights to which themselves were born.
Again here, the themes of memory, place, and the process of historical transmission are powerfully captured in the short verse.
A bolder reimagining was undertaken in 1965 by the playwright John Arden, who was commissioned by the City of London to commemorate the 750th anniversary, producing “a play of discussion” – Left-handed Liberty, performed before the Queen at the Mermaid Theatre.[64] As a Brechtian, Arden ensured that the drama made explicit the act of memory and the political resonances to be drawn between past and present. In Act 3, scene 7 King John, stepping out of character casting aside his armor and sword, addresses the audience with a question, brandishing the great historical study by McKechnie: what did his “frantic history mean, what use was it?” As he continued, “What use am I myself, a bogey man or ghost seven hundred and fifty years old and still mouldering – set down to prance before you in someone else’s body. What in fact have you seen tonight?” (84). As John answers his own question, “A document signed and nobody knew what for, or at least, nobody knew or could possibly know the ultimate consequences thereof.” Arden’s point was to reinforce that the relevance of the moment was remade for each generation – his achievement was to write in the voice of women (pushy princesses keep demanding to being removed from the periphery and refuse to go to their rooms, citing the liber homo clause, which John insists does not apply to them!). Arden’s play is worth revisiting because it imaginatively engages with the process of making meaning out of the past. The story of the Magna Carta was not a fairy tale; it became a cornerstone of ideas of English liberties. As Arden powerfully notes in his introduction,
An agreement on paper is worth nothing to anybody unless it has taken place in their minds as well: and that if we want liberty we have to make sure that (a) we know what sort of liberty we are fighting for, (b) our methods of fighting are not such as to render that liberty invalid before we even retain it, (c) we understand that we are in more danger of losing it once we have attained it than if we had never had it (xi-xii).
These are powerful warnings, and indeed have greater purchase 50 years later, when the battle between civil liberties and the demand of national security seem ever more brutal.
[64.] John Arden, Left-Handed Liberty: A Play about Magna Carta (London: Methuen, 1965), “Author’s notes.”