We Asked an Expert Whether Magna Carta Can Really Help You Defy Lockdown

In bad news for anyone who isn't a Medieval baron, the 800-year-old document means very little.
JG
London, GB
November 3, 2020, 4:07pm
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King John signing the Magna Carta. Photo: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Yesterday, a Twitter account called “Britishlivesuk” posted a tweet claiming: “If you own a business and display article 61 of the Magna Carta in your windows you can't be fined or forced to close your business. Vital this is retweeted.”

The post went viral, almost exclusively via being mocked, and was subsequently proven to be inaccurate. But the fact the claim spread so widely, and that many people did actually believe it, suggests there are a lot of misconceptions about the Magna Carta.

When you look at how the document is portrayed in contemporary politics, it’s hardly surprising that people might invoke it when they feel their individual liberty is threatened by the state.

In recent years, it has been described by the Prime Minister as “the foundation document of freedom and constitutional government in this country”, and by the UK Parliament itself as a document “which stated that the king and government weren't above the law, allowing people to hold their rulers to account”.

Even on the left, it has been invoked as a symbol of democracy, with David Lammy MP arguing in the Telegraph earlier this year that the Magna Carta enshrines “the right of an individual to be punished only as a result of ‘the lawful judgment of his equals’”.

But does the Magna Carta actually have any legal power today? Do we, the people, derive any protection from it whatsoever? And, most importantly, is there a section I can print out to show the police the next time I want to get drunk in a park with more than one friend?

I spoke to Medieval historian Dr Eleanor Janega to find out.

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VICE: So what’s this “Magna Carta” we’ve been hearing so much about?
Dr Eleanor Janega: To give a general rundown: it was signed into law in 1215 after a group of barons started a war known as “the baron’s rebellion”. This started because they were annoyed about what they saw as Royal incursions into traditional noble rights. They had a big enough army that they kicked the king’s ass, put together the Magna Carta and he signed it. It guaranteed particular protections specifically to the 25 barons in question.

A lot of it is about fishing weirs – a kind of obstruction used in tidal waters to catch fish – and who’s allowed to fish where. It’s a really esoteric document, which is specifically about codifying the powers of the nobility versus the powers of royalty. It really isn’t much of anything, other than a good example of the fact that the nobles and royalty didn’t get on during the Medieval period. 

It also got annulled a couple of years later by the Pope, who said, “Sorry, but you guys don’t actually get to make these particular decisions.”

So it means absolutely nothing? It has no legal influence today whatsoever?
No, not at all. It’s not a constitution. I hate to break it to you, but the barons did not have the interests of the common people at heart. A lot of their concerns here are “who do I get to collect tax from?” It’s about being able to extract money from serfs, not give them rights - my god, no one in the Medieval era has any rights!

Even if you’re in the nobility? What about if you’re descended from those same 25 barons?
No, it’s been almost completely repealed, apart from three clauses, which are all super-dry and procedural. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything. It doesn’t influence us in any way, shape or form. Even if it did, it would only apply to England, because Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland weren’t under the jurisdiction of the Crown at the time.

What does article 61 in the Magna Carta specifically mean? Why would this allow you keep your business open?
It’s really unclear why people think this is relevant; there’s nothing in article 61 that would suggest people had the right to keep their stores open. Again, it’s just going on and on about the 25 barons and how it only applies to them. If you’d owned a small business back then, you would have been a commoner, and this wouldn’t have applied to you.

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Why do you think the Magna Carta has achieved this mythic status? Has this phenomenon been quite consistent in England, or has it fluctuated?
You begin to see it take root in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the nationalist historiography. Everyone was looking for something which gives them a special “spirit of the country”, which was a common way for European countries to understand their history. In England, there was a longing for the Medieval period, which was contrasted with the industrialisation of the Victorian era. People thought of this as a much purer time.

Also, at a time when people were interested in setting up republics or creating constitutions, people alighted on the Magna Carta to say, “We do have this dutiful and proud tradition, where the King has to give people rights.”

It doesn’t do what they think it does. Everyone gets told this two sentence thing: “It enshrines the rights of the people, the king is not above the people.” That is nowhere present in that document. I’m noticing on Twitter now, for example, people saying: “Oh well, this certainly wouldn’t apply to lockdown, but it would help you get a fair trial if you’re arrested.” No! 

It seems to be a really important myth for British identity. Have you noticed people talking about the Magna Carta more since Brexit?
The relationship to Medieval history at the moment is certainly more nationalist, which is very tied to Brexit here. We’re having a lot of problems as Medievalists, with white supremacists making up weird stories about the Vikings, most of which are incorrect. There are a lot of incorrect narratives about what happened during the Crusades, and there are a lot of people getting really sad about the fact that Medieval Europe wasn’t exclusively white. People want to create a historic narrative about the idea that Britain is exceptional and has these particularised things that no one else in Europe had.

Thank you, Dr Janega.

So there you have it: if you want to protect your individual liberties as we enter lockdown, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The Queen and Boris Johnson could smash your small business to pieces with a baseball bat, and the Magna Carta would have absolutely fuck all to say about it.