The Christian roots of democracy’s most iconic document

One of the most important influences on the Magna Carta has been airbrushed out of history.
Thomas Andrew | Jun 16 2015 | comment  



Since the Magna Carta was a product of the deeply religious world of the Middle Ages, its underlying ideas are thoroughly Christian in their inspiration. Thomas Andrew has just published an essay for the Theos think tank in London, The Church and the Charter: Christianity and the Forgotten Roots of the Magna Carta. We asked him about the role of Christian thought in the development of this icon of modern democracy.

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MercatorNet: The first clause of the Magna Carta guarantees the freedom of the Church. So why is Christian influence so little mentioned today? 

Tom Andrew: In academic terms, there’s actually been something of a revival of interest in the role of the Church, and particularly Archbishop Stephen Langton, in writing and negotiating the Magna Carta. Just this week, new research has been published by a group of academics claiming that the Bishops of the English Church inserted their own scribes into the King’s courts to ensure that the Magna Carta was reproduced in accordance with the King’s promises.

But it’s certainly true that this academic interest has failed to filter through to popular thought. I think that’s largely because the simplest story is the easiest to grasp – the story of rebel barons and bad King John captures the public imagination.

But there’s also a sense in which we, as a nation, are fairly reluctant to acknowledge the influence of Christian faith in our political history. In our universities, the schools of political theory and the schools of theology are entirely separate entities, with very little cross-over. Given the influence of Christian theology on the development of Western political thought, I think this is a great shame.

What influence did the work of canon lawyers have on the formation of the Magna Carta?

The development of a theologically reflective and unified canon law in the 12th Century is possibly one of the most important steps in the history of the development of political thought, and laid the foundations for many of the ideas that we find in the Magna Carta. Of course you can’t trace the genesis of an idea directly back through history, but certainly many of the concepts that became critical aspects of canon law – the importance of due process, the limits of political authority, and the fundamentally egalitarian basis of law – are concepts and principles that we find enshrined in the Magna Carta.

It’s easy to forget that King John’s father, Henry II, had martyred the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a’Becket, only a generation before. Did Thomas’s posthumous moral victory influence the Magna Carta?

Certainly. The tensions between Church and King that had come to a head with the assassination of Becket reared their head again under King John. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was refused entry into England by King John, the Pope had proclaimed an interdict over all England – preventing priests from carrying out most of their duties. And even after Langton had finally been allowed back to Canterbury and the interdict lifted, many people in England saw him as a “new Becket” to challenge the authority of the King. Given that Becket had by now become “St Thomas” and a symbol of resistance to an unjust king, the tensions between King John and his Archbishop would have been fairly great..

Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a social conservative. How did he influence the more liberal view of the Magna Carta?

The whole experience of exile made Langton determined to protect and preserve the freedom and liberty of the English church from monarchical interference, and encouraged him to lend tacit (if not outright) support to the barons’ efforts. It was almost certainly Langton who inserted the first clause protecting the liberties of the church into the final version of the Magna Carta and his role as a negotiator was absolutely crucial. Under his leadership, the Church also played a vital role in guaranteeing that the Magna Carta was revived and reissued after King John’s death.

How did Christian canon law influence the notion of due legal process? Did it place the king under the law, or allow him to govern by divine right?

One of the most difficult questions faced by medieval theologians was how to enable those in authority (an authority granted by God, according to St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans), to take decisions that involved the life and death of another.

The question was particularly pertinent for a judicial system that was quickly moving away from the trial by ordeal as a legitimate form of justice. If a judge condemned someone to die, then how could they be theologically absolved of guilt for that person’s death – particularly if that person was innocent? However the question was also extended (by Stephen Langton no less, during his time as an academic in Paris) to kings. If a king waged an unjust war, or condemned someone to die unjustly, then how could they be kept free from moral responsibility?

This was a theological problem requiring a theological solution. The solution that arose drew on a formula of St Augustine – “when a man is killed justly, it is the law that kills him, not [the judge]”. This was the birth of the principle of due process. If the king or judge followed the precepts of the law, then he was free of moral guilt for his actions, for it was the law that had condemned, not the judge or monarch.

However this had serious implications for a medieval understanding of authority. While the move was made to preserve the moral authority of the king or judge, it had the very real effect of placing the monarch under the rule of law, rather than above it. And it is this principle which we find enshrined in the Magna Carta.

You argue that theological speculation underpinned the idea that a monarch could be held to account by his subjects. How did this come about?

By establishing the principle of due process, the canon theologians had established a principle by which the populace could distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate authority. So whereas previously the rule of Romans – that all authority has been established by God and should be obeyed as such – was applicable to all temporal authority, the principle of due process allowed some authority figures to be labelled as illegitimate, and thus incapable of demanding of obedience.

We find this theory laid out most clearly in the Policraticus of John of Salisbury, which was written in the mid-12th Century. John distinguishes between a prince, who follows the precepts of the law, and thus retains his temporal authority, and a tyrant, who, by failing to follow the precepts of the law, renders himself illegitimate. This is the basis from which John is able to famously advocate tyrannicide in the case of corrupt and oppressive monarchs.

Although the Magna Carta doesn’t employ the differentiation between prince and tyrant, nor advocate tyrannicide, we see reflections of this theological distinction between legitimate and illegitimate authority. Clause 61 of the Magna Carta gives a council of barons the right to “distrain and distress” the king in any way they see fit, should he or his descendents transgress the laws of the Magna Carta, in order to bring them back to right living and true authority.

Clauses 39 and 60 appear to guarantee the extension of rights to all freeborn men in the kingdom. Is that a consequence of the radical equality of all men before God in Christian theology?

Many commentators trace the origins of contemporary rights language back to the development of a unified canon law, and particularly the Decretum of the canonist Gratian. Gratian, in trying to reconcile the discordant canons of the church, had established several unifying principles by which these canons should be interpreted. The first and foremost of these was what we call the ‘Golden Rule’ – do unto others as you’d have them do to you. The Golden Rule is a radically egalitarian basis for law, because it makes no distinction between social standing or wealth. A rich baron should treat a poor serf as he himself would wish to be treated.

This radical egalitarianism is not quite what we find in the Magna Carta – the extension of rights language to “all free men” does not cover serfs, women or children, and it is still only granted in the form of a concession of the king, rather than as a statement of inalienable right. However this extension of rights language, limited though it might be, is still deeply radical, extending far beyond the narrow confines of interest that we find in the barons, and going further than any contemporary statutes in medieval Europe. What egalitarian basis it did have, was rooted in a shifting theological landscape that was coming to recognise the fundamental equality of persons before God.

Thomas Andrew is a free lance researcher in London.



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