Monday 29 December 2014

Magna Carta

We are delighted that this month’s guest post on The History Girls comes courtesy of Dan Jones author of The Plantagenets and presenter of the recent Channel 5 series about them called "Britain's Bloodiest Dynasty." He was kind enough to take some time out of a hectic schedule to answer a few questions posed by Elizabeth Chadwick on his excellent new book about the Magna Carta. 

This is what his publisher, Head of Zeus, has to say about him:

Dan Jones is the author of The Plantagenets and The Hollow Crown, both of which were Sunday Times bestsellers. As a journalist he writes regularly for The Sunday Times, Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, Spectator and is a columnist at the London Evening Standard. He has presented television programmes for the BBC and Channel 5 – most recently ‘Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets (2014) and ‘Great British Castles’ (2015).

In 2015 as part of the 800th anniversary celebrations Dan will be taking part in the British Library’s exhibition of the charter, appearing in events nationwide, and giving a TED talk on the subject. He lives in London with his wife and children and tweets as @dgjones.

Elizabeth Chadwick: In the summer of 1214, the year before Magna Carta was signed, a very significant battle, still commemorated by the French was fought near a place called Bouvines. King John was attempting to regain the continental dominions he had lost to the French almost ten years earlier. John and his allies suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the French. If there had been a different outcome to the Battle of Bouvines, or if King John had had a slightly less difficult character, do you think Magna Carta would not have happened - or was it inevitable?

Dan Jones: I guess this strikes right at the heart of Magna Carta: it was both a complaint against (and an attempt to correct) King John himself, and a howl of protest addressed at sixty years of Plantagenet (aka Angevin) government, going back to the accession of Henry II in 1154. The catastrophic loss at Bouvines certainly made things awkward for John in the autumn of 1214, and although John struggled against it for nine months into the spring of 1215, I think that some form of serious reckoning was inevitable after that loss. John’s personality certainly contributed substantially to his problems. It wasn’t that he was massively more monstrous than his father or his brother Richard I – but he lacked many of their redeeming qualities, AND he was thrust into much closer contact with his English subjects than either of his predecessors, because he had lost Normandy. To put it crudely, he was up in their faces all the time. Can we imagine a more benevolent, more militarily successful king John, who would have died in 1216 having driven the controversial Angevin system of government for a decade and a half without having been forced to agree Magna Carta? Yes, easily. But then I should think that the reckoning would probably have come during the reign of John’s son, Henry III.

Elizabeth Chadwick: Magna Carta often mentions the ‘ancient customs’ of the realm. Just how far back in the mindset of the barons involved in creating Magna Carta did these ancient customs go?

Dan Jones: People love to bang on about the good old days, don’t they? When your money went further, and the summers were hotter, and there weren’t so many foreigners… Those complaints (minus the stuff about the summers) were as common in 1215 as they are today. If we were going to put a date on it, then the barons were looking to the days of Henry I (1100-1135) for their inspiration – Henry I’s coronation charter was well known and was actually included in draft treaties that were drawn up for debate in the months and weeks before Magna Carta. But this isn’t the same as saying that the barons wanted to turn the clock back 115 years to 1100, and be done with it. Magna Carta was looking for reform in a partially imagined past, and its ‘ancient customs’ were not necessarily or wholly ancient.

Elizabeth Chadwick: The Church clearly placed itself in prime position with regard to the Magna Carta clauses and also ensured that the charter both began and ended with matters of ecclesiastical importance. Were the other clauses in the charter arranged in order of importance or just as they were thought about?

Dan Jones: You’re right – the hand of Archbishop Stephen Langton can be felt all over Magna Carta - the freedom of the Church is given pride of place and is restated at the end. Is there a logical flow to the rest of the 63 clauses (or chapters)? Not really – clauses are grouped together thematically, but when you read the charter aloud in its entirety (as I just did for the audiobook) you also get the powerful sense of this charter as unfinished business – slightly ragged, swarming with competing agendas and full of compromise. It was, after all, a peace treaty.

Elizabeth Chadwick: Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury was the ‘chair’ of the committee so to speak, but do we know which of the barons were most instrumental in bringing about the wording and content of these clauses? For example, I know that father and son Roger and Hugh Bigod had a good grasp of the law, the former having been an itinerant judge hearing pleas in the reign of King Richard and being a man with a keen eye to his own rights and personal advancement. I just wondered if there were any pointers to who the biggest movers and shakers were among those who hammered out the wording of Magna Carta?

Dan Jones: We absolutely do know who was involved in drawing up Magna Carta – and on both sides. The charter names more than two dozen men who advised the king – they include the great knight-turned-baron William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, the king’s half-brother William Longsword, earl of Salisbury, and a large number of English and Irish clergymen, including the archbishop of Dublin and the Master of the Templars. On the barons’ side, we have a list of the twenty-five noblemen who were appointed as enforcers of the charter – this was preserved by the chronicler Matthew Paris. You’re right to mention the Bigod family. Other notable figures included Robert FitzWalter, lord of Dunmow and Eustace de Vesci – two barons who had been agitating against John since 1212 when they had been at the heart of a plot to assassinate him. They also included the earls of Oxford, Clare, Essex, Winchester and Hereford, and the Mayor of London, Serlo the Mercer, who was presumably one of those who lobbied so hard for the explicit recognition of London’s liberties in Magna Carta.

Elizabeth Chadwick: Do you think that if Sir Edward Coke had not ‘rediscovered’ and promoted Magna Carta in the 16th century during the reigns of James I and Charles I that it would have sunk further into obscurity? Obviously he revived it and used it to boost the efforts to bind the Stuart kings to principles of government, but how much awareness was there of the document at that time among his peers?

Dan Jones: Well, by Coke’s time Magna Carta had been circulating in printed form for more than a century (it was first printed by Richard Pynson in 1508), but it had understandably not been very popular during the Tudor years. All that stuff about restraining kings and guaranteeing the freedom of the English Church was a bit… risqué. Look at Shakespeare’s King John, written probably in the 1590s – no mention at all of Magna Carta there. So the charter owes much to Coke for reviving it and making it a symbolic part of a political argument far removed from the circumstances of Magna Carta’s creation.

But the whole story of Magna Carta – in a sense, right from the first reissue in 1216 – is of it being revived, turned to another purpose and consequently mythologised. Coke was perhaps the most important figure of all in this process, along with our American cousins who adopted Magna Carta as their model as they thrashed out the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. But the process rumbles on even today, when Sir Tim Berners Lee calls for a Magna Carta For The Web, or Jay-Z uses ‘Magna Carta’ as the name of his album to suggest himself rewriting the rules of the music industry.

King John "signs" Magna Carta Bill Nye 1906
Elizabeth Chadwick: Although clauses 39 and 40 are the most well known and most often quoted – for example number 40: “To no free man will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice” - do you have a favourite clause of your own or one that especially interests you? If so will you tell us about it?

Dan Jones: I love the clause banning fish weirs in the Thames and Medway. (Clause 33). Partly because it speaks to the arcane and peculiarly ‘medieval’ nature of so much of Magna Carta’s content. And partly because as soon as you think about it, you conjure up a clear picture of the world of Magna Carta: wooden fish-traps placed along the rivers were a blight to the boats that relied on the south-east’s main waterways. There – now we’re out of the dusty world of ink on parchment and aboard a boat working its way along a tidal river. That’s the humanity that throbs beneath Magna Carta.

Elizabeth Chadwick: You have very clearly delineated the mass influence of Magna Carta up to this point in history. How do you see its influence progressing into the digital age for future generations?

Dan Jones: Big question and in a sense above my pay grade, but when I consider the circumstances that threw up Magna Carta and the big issues concerning our digital future, I mainly see masses of questions and no easy answers. How do you check massive companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and so on, whose wealth and power is starting to exceed that of some nation states? How do you regulate the regulators? What rights and liberties do we really all have in common? Who’s going to get rid of the fish-traps on the Thames and Medway? No, wait, I think we sorted that one.


Sally Zigmond said...

An absolutely fascinating interview for a novice medievalist. Full of insight and pointers for further study. Thank you, Elizabeth and thank you, Dan. Your book is a must for my growing collection.

Gillian Polack said...

Thank you for this. It takes me back to when I was a public servant. We had to put grandfather clauses into legislation for various reasons and inevitably someone would grumble "Why is this called 'grandfathering' anyway - there was no original grandfather?" I would say that yes there was and he was Henry I. I got such glares!