David A. Carpenter
Penguin Classics, New York, 2015, 592 pages
Book Review published on: October 6, 2017
Freedom has a jagged and unclean arc, but one that echoes strangely similar across time. For the eight hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta, historian David Carpenter has offered up a new translation and commentary on this seminal document. While his new book is three-quarters history and one-quarter jurisprudence and political science, it still speaks to contemporary audiences both in and out of the military who study the complex tension inherent between liberty and governance. Two clear facets of the book are discussed here; first, King John and the history that precipitated a need for a charter, and second, the parallels of America’s founding documents and experiences.
King John of England was not a particularly nice man, even by the standards of AD 1215 Britain. He was thought of as “energetic, intelligent, astute, imaginative, informed, and a master of details” who would often engage in lavish acts of penance such as feeding one hundred paupers on his days of fasting or holding feasts whose cost equaled the annual income of a wealthy baron. Yet, he was also boorish, oppressive, and cruel. Once he sent messages to the bishop during mass to finish the sermon because he was hungry. John repeatedly charged bribes for favorable outcomes in matters that came before his royal court for adjudication.
His largest source of income, close to 30 percent of all revenue, came from payoffs in the legal realm and another 10 percent arose from “feudal revenues (payments for reliefs, marriages, and wardships).” These fees were on top of the normal annual taxes of men and money. He seduced and slept with the wives of his barons, murdered his nephew, and starved a noblewoman and her son to death in such a depraved fashion that eleven days after their confinement, when the bodies were removed, the mother had eaten the flesh of her son’s cheeks. Heavy taxation, extortion for justice, murder, and brazen adultery with nobles’ wives, no wonder the barons united and revolted.
Against this backdrop, the history of the charter is rather straightforward. Carpenter posits that the single greatest cause of the Magna Carta was the “financial burdens placed on England to defend and recover the continental empire” after his loss of Normandy. John needed treasure. Money drove much of the document and is mentioned prominently throughout. With John’s taxes, fees, and “justice” requiring outright bribes, including the requirement to pay a hefty fee to marry their woman of choice, the barons reached a culmination point. Bonding together, they conducted an outright revolt, going so far as to seize the city of London. John, already weakened by continental losses, knew he had to negotiate.
In 1215 at Runnymede, the king sat down and negotiated the terms of what became the Magna Carta. From here forward, even the king would be under the written rule of law. Neither party received exactly what it wanted, but both thought the deal was workable. The barons thought some protections agreed upon now was a better course of action than continued hostilities. John agreed to the rules because he “hoped it would bring peace and make everyone disarm and go home. Thereafter it could remain as a vague symbol of good government,” but he did not truly believe it would be enforced. In fact, John petitioned the pope to invalidate it almost immediately. Thus, the original charter was actually a failure. The barons remained in London and one month later deposed the king, throwing their support behind Prince Louis of France. A one-year civil war erupted and ended after John’s death and his son Henry’s assumption of the throne. Henry was merely nine years old at the time, but his regent accepted the Magna Carta in full, and the civil war ended. The charter was revised several times until 1225, when it was issued in its final form with the full support of the church.
The parallels to America’s founding documents and grievances against England’s king are similar. Like the barons, the American colonies withstood, as Thomas Jefferson penned, “a long train of abuses.” The Founders protested taxation, argued for more local governance, and petitioned for the upholding of natural rights. Freedom of the church (First Amendment), justice and treatment of individuals and trial by jury (Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh amendments), unlawful seizure (Fourth Amendment), and fines and punishments (Eighth Amendment) are just some examples in our Bill of Rights that have analogous mentions in the Magna Carta.
Numerous other strands with our countries’ earliest years weave together as well. First of all, freedom advances in an imperfect fashion. The barons made concessions in exchange for certain secured rights, rights not initially extended to their subjects. Women gained protected rights as well, primarily in widowhood and property, but not equality. This has parallels to the U.S. Constitution that enshrined protection of certain natural rights but whose ideal took over a century before full realization. Secondly, when King John lost Normandy, his overriding goal was to “increase English revenues and build up the treasure needed to recover his continental possessions.” National money problems lead to crackdowns on the populace. A parallel to this was England’s taxation policies against the American colonies to pay for the French and Indian War. Third, written laws hold all parties accountable. Carpenter noted that the laws of Britain were not written down, and that the word “law” was basically more akin to the word “custom.”
Fourth, in combination with written law, bounded jurisdictions create a more stable society. There was a clearer delineation among what the national government could do, the subordinate roles, and natural rights retained by the common people. Both Britain of the early 1200s and America of the late 1700s believed that when the populace runs free, there is anarchy, but when government runs free, there is tyranny or oligarchy. Fifth, a driving and foundational philosophy of the barons writing the Magna Carta and America’s Founders came from the Bible. Baron Langton, following Biblical principle, wanted to have written rules and used Old Testament scripture to warn of the excesses and dangers of unchecked kings. Both groups discussed natural rights that emanated not from governmental or kingly decree, but from God. Finally, freedom often comes from, and is maintained by, military power. The barons overtook London to force the king’s hand and maintained control of the city even after the charter was signed. They then conducted an outright civil war. This corresponds to the American Revolutionary War.
In conclusion, Carpenter’s new rendition and analysis of the Magna Carta is worthy of consideration by today’s historical reader. At times, the book does delve a bit too deeply into minor historical trivia, rambles at times, or belabors points repeatedly, but overall is a respectable read. Most importantly, the book’s underlying points resonate to America’s founding, as well as modern debates among military and government leaders on continued nation building and the balance of governance and liberty.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Christopher M. Ellis, U.S. Army, Edinburgh, Indiana