It is one of those stories that bring English kings alive to schoolchildren – like Cnut ordering the sea to retreat, Alfred burning the cakes or Harold getting an arrow in the eye – and probably just as fanciful or misleading. It is a romantic story of Bad King John on an island in the River Thames, canopy above him and quill pen in hand, being forced by the assembled barons to sign Magna Carta – the ‘Great Charter’ of rights and liberties, on which Western constitutions, the rule of law, justice, democracy and freedom still rest. The reality is different. There certainly was such a grand meeting between the despised King John (1166-1216) and his barons on the island of Runnymede in June 1215. But there was no quill pen (kings at that time would affix their seal, not their signature, to documents).
In fact, there was probably not even a physical charter to be sealed – just hurried drafts, produced by scribes, on what was being negotiated and agreed. Nor did the charter that eventually emerged, with clauses on subjects such as fish weirs, widows’ inheritances and forests, look much like a conscious design for a constitution. Applying only to the elite, it was certainly no blueprint for democracy. And within weeks, John had got the Pope, his feudal superior, to annul the whole thing anyway.
Yet despite all that, Magna Carta and what it stands for still runs deep in the Western consciousness. It has almost totemic status as the guarantee of our rights and freedoms, and of just government, restrained by the rule of law.