800 years ago at Runnymede, near Windsor, rebellious English barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta, ‘the Great Charter’. A political document redefining the limits of royal power. Pope Innocent III quickly declared it null and void and John himself repudiated before dying next year.
Often violated by medieval monarchs, Magna Carta is now hailed as the seminal document of English liberties, democracy and human rights – a veritable proto-constitution. Splendid but…myth or reality?
A current British Library exhibition boosts the myth, yet it admits that 60 of the Charter’s 63 clauses have been repealed. Just as well. The first clause states that the English Church shall be free: ‘It shall have its rights undimini
shed and its liberties unimpaired.’ In case you were in doubt: ‘free’ means free from royal interference, not from papal authority (A freedom which the ghastly tyrant Henry VIII later usurped and suppressed). Today the Church of England is so utterly unfree that its bishops are appointed by the monarch – the Prime Minister, in fact. Some freedom!
Clauses 10 and 11 take a swipe at Jewish money lenders. If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife will have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. Whatever the reasons way back, today that smacks of anti-Semitism. King John’s grandson, Edward I, may have had those articles in mind when he expelled the poor Jews from England in 1290. Dreadful prejudice.
Clause six says that heirs may not be given in marriage to person of ‘lower social rank’. Not quite egalitarian or progressive a sentiment, is it? Actually, Magna Carta flatly denies equal rights. Article 21 declares that ‘earls and barons shall be fined only by their peers’, not by any ordinary commoners or similar riff-raff. Indeed, until the 19th century British aristocrats were tried by their peers in the House of Lords. Thus the much boasted clauses 39 and 40 which stipulate that ‘no free man should be seized or imprisoned except by the lawful judgment of his equals’ are revealed in their true light.
As Dr Claire Breay points out, peasantry, serfs and slaves – the greater part of the English population back then – were definitely not ‘free men’. So Magna Carta never included them.
What about the celebrated right or law of habeas corpus, said to have its glorious origins in the Charter? In fact, it was only passed as an Act of Parliament in 1679 but it was never a right sacrosanct or absolute. In Britain it has often been suspended, notably during the French Revolution, in wartime and more recently in Northern Ireland. ‘Magna Carta is dead!’ lamented members of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists when Churchill ordered their internment in 1939. A bit ironical, perhaps.
If Magna Carta was so central to the nation’s historical consciousness of law and liberty you would expect that supreme English genius, William Shakespeare, to mention it. Not so. The immortal Bard’s play, The Life and Death of King John, says not a word about it.
Understandably, Shakespeare was keen on celebrating the dubious glories of the absolutist Tudor and Stuart dynasties. It would have been dangerous for him to portray an English King as bested by his own noblemen. Hardly brave but…human, all too human.
Historian Dan Jones observes that the problem with the Great Charter is that ‘it has become almost entirely detached from its original context’. Therefore it can be read in many different ways and used ‘to bolster any position you fancy’. Upholders of liberal democracy, taxation-hating libertarians, advocates of Anglican Church’s disestablishment, free trade fanatics, even far-right activists – they can all claim Magna Carta as justification for their causes.
The hoary medieval document ‘can mean whatever you want it to mean’ according to Jones. Little surprise therefore that even Prince Charles has suggested there should be a ‘Magna Carta for the Earth’. A sort of global deal on climate change. Britain’s future King means well but he should perhaps be careful not to provoke fears of untoward royal meddling, as his recent ‘black spider’ memos seem to suggest. I trust Charles has no desire to emulate the autocratic example of his ancestor King John!
What about the famous Charter or Constitution of Medina, promulgated by the Prophet Muhammad in 622 AD – 1 AH – after his hijra from Makkah to Yathrib or Medina? It consisted of a number of short treatises, set out in paragraphs, concluded between the Prophet, on behalf of his followers, the Muhajirun and the Ansar, and the people of Medina, also including Jewish tribes living there. (It is unlikely there were Christians in Medina so the Charter does not mention them.)
To begin with, it is a genuine and important historical document. Tom Holland, by no means an uncritical writer on Islam, grants that the document is ‘accepted even by the most suspicious scholars as deriving from the time of Muhammad.’ Significantly, those listed in the compact are described as henceforth united in one single Umma, one community.
The Medina Charter promises security for all. Professor C.S. Bosworth notes that one article states that ‘The dhimma of God is one, i.e. all within the Umma are equally protected…so that complete solidarity…is assured for all.’ Of course, the Charter also sets out several obligations, such as never to take the side of an unbeliever against a believer; war to be undertaken only with the permission of the Prophet; during war no believer to make peace with the enemy without agreement of the community. One key article says that God himself approves of the Charter.
The tolerance displayed by the agreement is remarkable because one article even includes the polytheists living in Medina as part of the single Umma. That is recognised by Maxime Rodinson, a somewhat rancorous writer on Islam, although he also opines that it was only a temporary arrangement, to be revised once the historical situation had changed.
One interesting comment by Professor Bosworth prompts a comparison between the generous and inclusive Medina Charter and a later, narrower text or covenant put forward after the Prophet’s death by Caliph Umar al-Khattab, whom he correctly terms as ‘legalistic’. The Charter of Umar burdened Christians with a heavy load of petty restrictions and liabilities, from matters of dress and hairstyle to chanting loudly. Christians had to agree to all such humiliating constraints in exchange for protection – or suffer the consequences.
A constitution is a body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state is acknowledge to be governed. Both Magna Carta and the Medina Charter evince constitution-like features in that normative sense. However, it is well to keep in mind that because certain principles or laws are enunciated in a text that does not mean that they will be implemented in reality. For example, the old Soviet constitution read like a wonderful affirmation and guarantee of all sorts of rights, liberties and fair treatments for its citizens. The sombre dictatorial reality of the Communist state was entirely different.
Religion appears to be the connecting link between the Magna Carta and the Medina Charter. Of course, the Creator and his will and laws are generally assumed by the drafters of the English document because for centuries England had been a Christian nation. The Medina Constitution marks rather the opening of the new Islamic era, sealed by the message of the Prophet Muhammad. Nonetheless, God’s name is hailed in both.