Magna Carta: an early glimmer of the light of liberty

Nicholas Lorimer | Jun 27, 2021
History is not x leads to y leads to z, but rather a complex network of streams which flow into and out of one another. This is especially true when talking about the history of ideas and political movements.

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Magna Carta: an early glimmer of the light of liberty

Any historian worth their salt will tell you that drawing straight lines in history is a fool’s game.

The story of human beings is so vastly complicated that to pick out any one thread and follow it in a straight line will inevitably lead to misconception. History is not x leads to y leads to z, but rather a complex network of streams which flow into and out of one another. This is especially true when talking about the history of ideas and political movements.

That said, it can still be enlightening to follow one of the streams in isolation to at least get a vague idea of how things came to be as they are.

So, with that thought in our minds, let’s follow one of these streams, one of many that one can point to as the start of the political movement for human liberty and freedom. One might argue that it begins at the dawn of humanity, with the desire for freedom being a core part of the human soul. In this telling, the first hunter-gatherer to set out from his or her clan or tribe in search of a freer existence in the next valley is the first liberal.

Others might point to the earliest merchants and traders in civilization, the ancient democracy in Athens, the Roman Republic with its great heroes such as the Roman statesman Cicero, who fought – and failed – to preserve the Roman Republic from tyrants.

All of these are reasonable starting points. But one of the origins of what we might call the modern liberty movement began, not among elected politicians or freedom fighters of the ancient world but in that most unlikely of places – a small damp island off the north coast of Europe, today known as Britain.

Not only did some of the most treasured of modern liberal institutions and thought begin in this strangest of places, but the unwitting creators of this tradition were not freedom-seeking peasants but rather violent and exploitative nobles who sought to grow their own power over their tenants.

Let's step back a moment to see where this came from.

The political and cultural institutions that would grow into becoming the kingdom of England began sometime in the 5th century. In the early 5th century, the Roman Empire withdrew its troops from the island of Britain. The Romano-British peoples who made up much of the island’s population were suddenly without an army, and Picts from the north and Germanic tribes from across the sea to the east soon ravaged the island, which saw a total economic collapse as well as the near total collapse of Roman legal and political institutions.

Into this chaotic place moved many people from various Germanic tribes. Starting somewhere around the year 450, Angles, Jutes, Frisians and Saxons began moving in significant numbers into the British Isles and conquering or displacing the local Britons. These people, who would come to be known as the English, brought with them ancient Germanic tribal customs and political organisations.

Their society was frightfully barbaric, and simple from our modern vantage point, but it still included some aspects we might call proto-democratic or proto-liberal. Initially, families and clans would meet in “hundreds” and “Shires” to administer their local communities, resolve disputes and dispense justice. These meetings often contained an elective component. Government was decentralized, local and sometimes even slightly democratic. Kings had limited powers, as they did not extensively legislate for or tax their populations. Kings also had to consult, and be elected by, their ‘Witan’, or council of great lords.

As all systems do, this would change over the centuries; successive waves of raiding and invasion by Vikings would upset the politics of England. With a great threat to life, liberty and property, the proto-English had to become more unified. So, during the 9th and 10th centuries, England transformed from being several small kingdoms into just one, that being the Kingdom of England.

The faint whispers of liberalism present in the earlier centuries were in many ways snuffed out. Kings became more powerful and the need to centralise tax revenue to pay bribes to the Vikings to get them to leave created a more powerful and centralized tax regime which extracted wealth more efficiently than in any other European kingdom at the time.

This growing power of the central state over the local government and the individual would be further cemented when the Norman-French conquered and colonised England in 1066. These invaders brought with them their language and institutions (which included much tighter control of the peasants, enforced by garrisons in castles) and they almost entirely displaced the English nobility. Now the English were ruled over by foreigners. These new kings saw themselves as above the law.

While many would expect the small embers of liberty to die out in England, as they would in many other places in Europe in the coming centuries, a curious thing happened.

The new nobility of England became increasingly estranged from their king. The Norman nobles and king still held much land in France, predating the invasion of England, and this led to generations of English kings feuding with the French. These wars were unpopular, as such conflicts were very expensive.

Perhaps influenced by some of the local government structures of the shires that they ruled over, or perhaps absorbing some of the ancient customs from their English subjects, or perhaps simply because they didn’t want to pay taxes to the king, the nobles of England began to protest the power of the monarch.

These disputes would form the core of English politics for centuries to come and would only be definitively resolved in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In the early 13th century, after the death of the great warrior king of England, Richard the Lionheart, his younger brother John came to the throne. John was deeply unpopular with the nobles as he ruled in what they considered to be an arbitrary and cruel manner. After losing Normandy to the French between 1202 and 1204 in yet another expensive war, the nobles had had enough and began to agitate against King John.

In 1215, a group of rebels, consisting of powerful landowners, usually referred to as ‘the barons’, swore an oath publicly to "stand fast for the liberty of the church and the realm". They marched on London, demanding the king listen to their concerns.

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