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Book Review: Magna Carta

By (October 24, 2015) No Comment

Magna Carta: The Birth of Libertymagna carta

by Dan Jones

Viking, 2015

As we’ve seen, 2015’s 800th anniversary of King John’s granting of the so-called Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 has resulted in a spate of books, from excellent biographies of John to excellent studies of 1215 to excellent critical editions of the text itself. 2015 is now coming to a close, and 2016 will bring its own historical anniversaries (Happy 950th birthday, Battle of Hastings!). But before the somewhat involuntary festivities conclude, we have Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty by popular historian Dan Jones, who brings his customary slightly contrarian tone to a subject badly in need of such a corrective, namely the miasma of piety that’s grown up around Magna Carta in the centuries since it was first sealed (and almost immediately then violated):

One of the greatest paradoxes of the Magna Carta is the fact that the less relevant most of its words become to modern life, the greater the reverence attached to its name. “Magna Carta’ is today used as a byword for all types of aspiration to freedom, liberty, and (quite erroneously) democracy … No clause of the charter mentions or was intended to promote anything that we would today consider “democratic”; indeed, the idea of democracy was alien and would quite possibly have been offensive to the wealthy, oligarchical, and largely self-interested barons who opposed King John in 1215.

Jones, author of a great history of the Plantagenet dynasty of which John was a singularly undistinguished member, somewhat inaccurately claims here that Magna Carta was “born out of two generations of opposition to the excesses of early Plantagenet government during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries” when in reality that confrontation at Runnymede came about solely as a result of John’s weak and contemptible character – and that fact that he was surrounded by barons whose families and interests had grown enormously powerful under those same early Plantagenets. As Jones makes more clear than any of the other 800th-anniversary celebrants, what John was dealing with when he was forced to the bargaining table wasn’t so much over-mighty subjects as it was rival monarchs:

Once he had payed homage to the king, a baron could comport himself like a miniature king. He held court in a castle, kept a large household of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of male and female servants, took counsel from knights and lesser barons, made judgments in his private courts, sponsored religious houses, commissioned fine chapels in which he and his family would eventually be buried, authenticated documents with his special seal, and identified himself in tournaments and on the move with a heraldic shield and flag emblazoned with his personal coat of arms.

It’s a torturous route, therefore, to get from a title like “Magna Carta” to a subtitle like “The Birth of Liberty,” and it’s refreshing that Jones seems to have so little interest in making such a case. Instead, he gives his readers what they’ve come to expect: muscular research and lively narrative. Opportunistic narrative in this case, but lively just the same.

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