Books interview with David Starkey: “The Magna Carta of 1215 was designed to create a revolutionary regime”

David Starkey talks to Matt Elton about his book exploring the origins of the influential 13th-century charter, how it developed over the next decade – and whether it is still important today

Magna Carta

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In Context

Magna Carta was initially drafted in 1215 in an attempt to broker peace between England’s barons and the unpopular King John. It failed, and the country was plunged into civil war. Following John’s death the charter then underwent a series of revisions over the next decade. An updated version was issued in 1216 by the government of his successor, the young Henry III, in an attempt to placate the rebels. Having won the war, the king issued a new edition in 1217 in order to cement peace. The final version was produced in 1225 in return for a grant of taxation.

The settlement has since become closely associated with human rights around the world.


How do you see Magna Carta echoing through history?

The events of 1215 were revolution averted – and I happen to think that’s rather a good thing. I think that the evidence of revolutions is that, on the whole, they tend to be terribly bad. I don’t think that France has ever recovered from 1789, and certainly it’s never recovered from the Terror. Russia, manifestly, has never recovered from the revolution, and nor has China.

Of course, there is – particularly among younger people and the Marxist-influenced – a kind of romantic fascination with revolution, a regret that we didn’t have one, and a feeling that we somehow missed out.

I think that this is terribly wrong: we were extraordinarily fortunate to have missed out. If you look at the 10-year span from 1215 to 1225 you see that Magna Carta began as this absolutely radical thing. The charter of 1215 was so way-out, but we’ve forgotten that because we’ve sentimentalised it.

What did the 1215 Magna Carta set out to do?

It set out to do three things. Firstly, to bridle a king, John, who was dangerous and unpredictable and made his whim the law, and secondly, to make it impossible for any other king to rule in the same way. It was successful in both of those things. The third thing was the great change, and something very different: it set out to create machinery that absolutely bound any king in iron to its measures. The 1215 Magna Carta failed in that respect because it would have created a neo-republican government. It began as a thoroughly extremist programme before being edited and reaching common ground.

It’s perfectly clear that it was highly controversial from the beginning: hence the denunciation of Magna Carta by the papacy, and the way in which you had the conservatives, such as William Marshal, who worked to reinstate all the good-sense bits of the charter but left out the extreme attempts to constrain the king.

You then get the whole question of how it is to be enforced. And the 1225 Magna Carta actually sketches out a long-term way of doing this, which is that the charter is reissued in return for a grant of taxation.

In other words, it’s a deal done between the king and his people – it’s a proto-parliamentary model. That’s how, in the fullness of time, deals do tend to take place – although that will never limit kings such as Henry VII, Henry VIII or Henry III. Any king who wants to drive a coach through it can, and so perpetually in the Middle Ages you get a return to a model of an aristocratic cabal committee. It never works, it always goes wrong and falls over into faction – until the absolutely decisive moment of the Glorious Revolution in the 17th century.

To what extent is what we think we know about June 1215 incorrect?

An awful lot is accurately documented in the most extraordinary detail. One of the reasons that I got so excited about this project is that I think it’s the first event in English history in which you can see the whole political process at work. You can see how in a few days it has to be worked up, and envisage the poor clerks of the chancery having what we could call an essay crisis, with five days to sort this whole thing out.

What we have got completely wrong is that we somehow imagine that Magna Carta established at a stroke this foundation of the rule of law and constitution of England, rather than it being a document produced in a moment of extreme crisis and haste. About a third of it was really designed to be both a peace treaty and an extremely uneven and lopsided peace treaty. Because of course John didn’t have a leg to stand on; he had no party, he’d lost control of his capital. So it was designed to create a revolutionary regime.

You write that John is the “oddest and strangest of kings”. What did you make of his character?

He was a clearly manic depressive, with extraordinary bursts of energy alternating with total passivity, and prone to acts of extreme indulgence – sleeping on silk sheets, for instance, which was a degree of comfort that would have appeared positively perverted in the Middle Ages. At the same time, he paid minute attention to the detail of the administration. There was an obsession about the man and a total self-indulgence. I think he was a spoilt brat.

Why did the 1215 Magna Carta fail? Who can we pin the blame on?

The settlement was absurd; it could never have worked. It was bound to fail because it tried to present itself as a middle ground, but its very nature was that it was designed to bring John to heel. It could have never been an equitable settlement because it was designed to be a one-sided bridle on the king, and it could only become a long-term settlement once that element was struck out.

One of the things that we forget is that the Magna Carta of 1215 had 62 or 63 clauses, while the long-term one has in the region of 40. A third of it was struck out in 1216, and that whole process was so like the modern civil service. There were all these other clauses on dues and debts, and what the composition of the representative body was going to be. Despite the fact that these people were speaking Norman French, there’s something terribly English about it all.

Are there any sections of the 1225 Magna Carta that you think are still particularly relevant today?

This is the great difference between Britain and the US. In America, Magna Carta is in the constitutions of 15 or so states in its entirety. We, meanwhile, have repealed all but three chapters. We take an entirely different view of this, and the chapters that survive are those that are full of sound and fury and, I suspect, signify nothing. “The Church of England be free” – well! All this business about not selling justice – does it do anything about court fees? No.

I know I’m being deliberately provocative by saying that I think that all of these grand flamboyant statements of rights are sound and fury, but I do think that they are will-o’-the-wisps. If you look at the grand statement of universal freedom, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of the French Revolution, no sooner was it passed than it was locked up in a chest and forgotten about, and a committee of public safety put in place. There has never been a more universally entrenched rights constitution than that of Soviet Russia under Stalin – but unless you have the machinery in place to deal with it… Magna Carta worked not because of all the high-sounding guff about justice but because it provided the machinery to bound the king at law, led to the creation of a parliament, and strapped the king down on the issue of taxation.

Did it actually make a difference to the lives of people in the 13th century?

Oh yes. It had an immense and immediate impact on law and on the development of law. Individual clauses are very quickly pleaded. What’s striking is how many copies were circulated. It forced governments to behave differently, and set rules for good behaviour and, once the charter was reissued in 1225, it became impossible to impose general taxation without consent.

I think you are repeatedly struck by the ambition of 1215. Whatever you may think about the motives of the people like Robert Fitzwalter, clearly I rather respect ambition. I respect radicalism; I don’t necessarily like it, but I respect it. They are intellectually ambitious, which is impressive whatever one thinks. How do we go about setting an absolute monarch in chains?

Why should we care about Magna Carta?

We care about it because it’s there. There’s a myth, it’s an anniversary… all these banal things. We should care about it in substance because much of the myth is true. The year 1215 really is the beginning of a very particularly English politics – and I’m daring to use the word English – which has actually survived 800 years. The futures of England and the English political system are first sketched out in 1215 – or rather, in that crucial decade-long crisis of the charters from 1215 to 1225. You can trace so much back to that point: the whole dialogue of Whig and Tory; particular models of statesmanship that constantly repeat themselves; this crisis of charters leading directly to the establishment of parliament. The whole structure of parliamentary government really begins with the reissue of the charter in 1225.

What new impression of Magna Carta and its legacy would you like readers to leave this book with?

I would like them to think about Magna Carta not as some kind of sacred origin of the English constitution but as a product of crisis, of revolution narrowly averted, and of the thing that we’ve all become so contemptuous of – the political process.

That process is one of compromise, of wheeler-dealing, of not getting quite everything that you want. It’s about recognising that your opponents may have a point. We’ve become very contemptuous of all those things, and that’s very dangerous, because that’s the route of a Robespierre or a Lenin. English history is a very different lesson: one of perpetual compromise and accommodation.

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Magna Carta: The True Story Behind the Charter by David Starkey (Hodder and Stoughton, 304 pages, £18.99)