In Catholic science fiction writer John C. Wright’s article, Unanswered Equality Challenge, he argues against monarchy, takes the traditional track, and evokes the spirit of the Magna Carta:
“In Europe, when Saint Patrick overthrew the Druids, he was forced to write a law code for that barbaric people. What he wrote was based directly on the Bible, including the Biblical principle that all men are created in God’s image, hence equal. When the Archbishop of Canterbury (at that time, a Catholic) drafted the Magna Carta, when the barons at Runnymede forced King John to agree to limits on his government, the inspiration of the Irish law was present.”
It would be fascinating if someone could point us to some supporting articles for this idea. Many historians claim that the Great Charter was actually inspired by a 20-clause coronation charter written by King Henry I. Yet it is not my intention to explore how Irish law codes inspired Archbishop Stephen Langton to pen the document.
My intention is to play the bad guy and explore how Wright’s notion of the Magna Carta’s righteousness is a mistaken sentiment. It is a widely-held idea among Protestants and Americanists that the Magna Carta is a manifestation of common men rising up against an intrinsic enemy in positions of royalty. It is widely-held that the Magna Carta is a tangible revelation that bubbled up from history in order to show that men should govern themselves.
“While most modern historians scoff at the role of the Magna Carta in the history of liberty, but these provisions of religious liberty, of trial by jury, and of habeus corpus not only are central to the Common Law, they do not appear in any form in any ancient or pagan legal code.
“The effect of the Magna Carta on later charters of rights, on the Glorious Revolution, and on the Bill of Rights of the American Revolution should be known to all educated citizens in America.
“The ideal of equality is behind the provisions quoted: if the king does not outrank the Church, he has no authority to interfere in her internal matters. Likewise for trial by jury. The ideal of equality is not an invention of atheist French radicals, nor Jacobins, nor a sinister Jewish plot, but rather an ideal that comes directly from the central trunk of Anglo-American law, gathered from the roots in Biblical law, Roman jurisprudence, and Greek philosophy.”
I do not think that most historians scoff at the Magna Carta. I think that a majority of historians extol it. But today, I shall be the antagonist.
The Magna Carta is a rich man’s charter that entrenches the interests of an oligarchy. The fact that this document is held up as a symbol of freedom and equality is a cultural paradox. And why a Protestant victory such as The Glorious Revolution is extolled by a Catholic such as John Wright is equally perplexing.
Furthermore, Wright’s use of the term “equality” is incorrect. Most historians are sloppy, and they portray the barons of Runnymead as innocently seeking a state of equity with the king. This is wrong; the barons were seeking equality with King John–they wanted more powers in order to become an oligarchy that could thwart him. “Equity” is the word that should be used, not equality. When it comes to a topic like this, equality means giving everyone an equal chance for authority, and this is a rather Marxist philosophy. Equity, on the other hand, means that the law applies to everyone no matter the rank. With equity, everyone is treated fairly, and class makes no difference. Inequality is not a sin, but inequity is. This is an important distinction. Not all inequalities are inequities.
The barons should have never been elevated into a position capable of thwarting royal authority. They should not have sought to become an equal with the king. That, after all, is what Lucifer sought when he wanted to match God before the War in Heaven.
The Basic Magna Carta Conclusions
The three main takeaways that people celebrate are that 1. No one is above the law, even the king, 2. people have a right to a fair trial, and 3. people who are taxed should be represented. Meeting the demands of these three ideals does not involve making men equal with one another. Rather, justice involves eliminating the inequity between all men so that each man is held to the same legal standard. If these three demands are understood in terms of inequity rather than inequality, then suddenly the need to upend the political and social order is completely unnecessary.
Furthermore, these demands of the Magna Carta were meant for the nobles only. Many of the clauses are directed solely to the grievances of the barons. Their action was not a healthy revolution of the proletariat, but a revolt of aristocrats. Commoners did not have much to fear from King John, but they had a lot to fear from their local bosses. It was good that a king had the authority to protect a peasantry exposed to the depredations and ravages of “the local guy.”
Yet Magna Carta’s Clause 61 shows that these barons tried to turn themselves into a politburo that had official and written permission to wage war against the king, killing everyone around him until he submitted to their oligarchy. This oligarch class is allowed to build up a private army designed to kill everyone around the king, and according to Clause 61, the king can only sit there and watch without interfering as this happens. This is a dysfunctional and un-Catholic arrangement.
Why does John C. Wright wave the banner of the Magna Carta of all examples? Repeated and constant reference to it throughout history by anti-Catholic revolutionaries has consecrated it to the point that the Magna Carta is now pretty much a sacred Protestant relic, right up there with Thomas Jefferson’s desk.
Human rights were already taking shape in the minds of canonists, jurists, and thinkers across Europe in 1215 and earlier. The Magna Carta is a revolutionary prize extolled by Enlightenment fans. Yet The Charter is a product of a greater Catholic synthesis. I would have thought that John Wright would much rather have preferred holding up Bartolome de Las Casas, who in the 1500s championed that the newly-discovered Natives of the Americas had natural rights to liberty, property, self-defense, and their own ruler. That, I think, would have been a more Catholic example–but even then, Las Casas was arguing for equity between men, not equality.
Progressives Who Left Behind Their Patrimony
Before touching on the anti-traditional, progressive aspect of the circumstances surrounding the Magna Carta’s formation, it would probably be appropriate to remind ourselves of an epigraph from a famous Leftist.
“Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.”
— Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals
The barons who held King John hostage were acting against the authority of their government’s institution. They did not respect their government when they pinned down King John. In a strange way, it would have been cleaner to just kill King John right then and there and put in a new king. In theory, it seems as though the nobles wanted to preserve the original intention of their forefathers. But in practice, they were trying to escape the bounds of their government’s power. They wanted to be progressive. They were trying to create something…new. And for this reason, post-Enlightenment intellectuals who know no better tend to extol the barons of Runnymeade.
Yet the pope himself would have a thing or two to say about the radicals who formulated the Magna Carta. And the barons and their allies, in fact, knew that the pope would be against them. They–and even their accomplices in the English clergy–were aware on a certain level that the conspirators of the Magna Carta did not want King John to invite the pope to invalidate the document. Papal intervention was a threat to their interests. William S. McKechnie mentions this, as he discusses the controversial Clause 61 in his book, Magna Carta, A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John:
“The Articles of the Barons afford evidence of the framer’s suspicions that John would apply to Rome for release from his bargain. They demanded that the English prelates and the papal legate should become the King’s sureties, that he would not invite the Pope to invalidate the Charter. If Pandulf, as the Pope’s accredited agent, had put seal to such a document, he would have seriously embarrassed his august master.
“Two important alterations in the completed Charter were effected, however, whether at John’s instance, or at that of Pandulf, or of the English prelates, is a matter of conjecture. All mention of Innocent by name was omitted, the clause being made quite general in its terms: John promised to procure a dispensation “from no one”; while the question of sureties was ignored. Innocent was left free to support John’s policy of repudiation.”
This is all very ironic when we consider that Pope Innocent specifically appointed Archbishop Stephen Langton. Just a few years prior to these events, Langton was supposed to be “the pope’s guy.” And yet, Archbishop Langton turned out to be the very man responsible for organizing and writing The Charter. To be sure, the good archbishop had his regrets. Even before the gathering at Runnymede, the archbishop had grown suspicious of this executive committee of barons. And while it may have been true that every English bishop along with the Master of the Knights Templar bought into this cause behind The Charter, they would later have buyer’s remorse.
Sure, it could be said that the barons were well-meaning. They were merely seeking a pragmatic solution to their ills. They were caught up in a reactionary protest against a system established by King Henry II. They thought they were trying to be reasonable and to compel King John to restore their ancient liberties, laws, and customs. And looking back, are not all Constitutional documents of English history reactionary statements of principles and rights recently violated?
Yet, in spite of this, the inconvenient truth is that the action they took with the Magna Carta was anything but traditional. There is a reason historians have a brief pause when they examine this event. The actions of the barons and English clergy was a radical, revolutionary act of rebellious malcontents and insurgents. The Charter was won at swordpoint, and could not be looked at as a legitimate act of legislation. The Magna Carta is as Catholic as a group of Muslim terrorists forcing the president to sign congressional bills, standing over him with machine guns and explosive suicide vests. It was an act of coercion. And yet we celebrate this?
The barons and their allies in the English clergy were not respecters of any traditional order. For, to add insult to injury, to thwart King John they were willing to let the French prince Louis become king, thus selling out the entire realm and allowing the French to usurp the throne. Appealing to outsiders? So much for English tribalism. A political maneuver such as this could be viewed as similar to the American Black Caucus appealing inviting Nelson Mandela to take over the American presidency in order to establish policies for the benefit of constantly aggrieved blacks. Or, similarly, this would be akin to the Hispanic immigrant population of the United States asking that a Mexican official take hold of the president’s desk in order to exercise their version of fair migrant policies. The barons cared not one wit for the social or political integrity of their own realm, and they were perfectly willing to sell out to foreigners to achieve their ends. This kind of behavior does not preserve patrimony.
What Should Be A Pyrrhic, Bittersweet Outcome
King John was by no means a holy roller for Catholicism. True, he was a professed crusader and a vassal of the pope. True, the pope was King John’s suzerain and legal arbiter. However, in the years before Runnymead, he was confiscating Church property and managed to get himself excommunicated by Pope Innocent. These and so many other ill-advised maneuvers earned him the title “Bad King John.”
And yes, some good things have spawned from the circumstances surrounding the Magna Carta, as Fr. William Slattery discusses in Heroism and Genius:
“That document–authored by Langton–struck a blow for subsidiarity and for free trade, marking the start of a constitutional regime in which Church and people had their rights legally protected. It told British monarchs that the Church had jurisdictional and property exemptions; that the cities and towns of England should have the scope to create their own laws on import duties and taxes; that merchants had rights for safe travel and immunity from “evil tolls”; and that twenty-five barons elected by the nobility would protect these rights (the beginning of the House of Lords).”
I would probably argue against that last “benefit”, the House of Lords. All that being said, the benefits that came from the Magna Carta are similar to the idea that the abolition of slavery in America resulted from the Civil War. Both circumstances were unnecessary, forced, and should be viewed with regret. In fact, popes condemned both the forced signing of the Magna Carta as well as the American Civil War–that War of Northern Aggression.
And so, as any thinking Catholic could expect, Pope Innocent III excommunicated the barons. Archbishop Stephen Langton was suspended from his office in the summer of 1215 for refusing to publish a papal bull giving a papal commission full power to excommunicate all “disturbers of the King and Kingdom.” An August 24th papal bull, titled Etsi Karissimus in Christo declared the following:
“On behalf of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and by the authority of SS Peter and Paul his apostles, and by our own authority, acting on the general advice of our brethren, we utterly reject and condemn this settlement [the Magna Carta] and under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe it and that the barons and their associates should not require it to be observed: the charter, with all undertakings and guarantees whether confirming it or resulting from it, we declare to be null, and void of all validity for ever. Wherefore, let no man deem it lawful to infringe this document of our annulment and prohibition, or presume to oppose it. If anyone should presume to do so, let him know that he will incur the anger of Almighty God and of SS Peter and Paul his apostles.”
Pope Innocent III declared the Great Charter null and void, not because it gave too many liberties to the barons and the people, but because it had been obtained by violence. Had he realized that the Magna Carta would–in the vast span of history–pave the way for the rise of English oligarchy, he likely would have said something about that as well.
The barons’ force and the fear they imposed was a contemptuous act against the Holy See. The royal prerogative was diminished. The English nation was stirred into mad outrage. The enterprise of the Crusades were imperiled by all of this drama. The Magna Carta–a document signed by force of arms–was altering the relationship between aristocracy and the royalty to the detriment of the latter. It was destructive, and everyone knew it at the time. It was birthed in conspiracy, won by blood, and rightfully revoked.
The Magna Carta has since become a theoretical platitude. It has become an intangible ideal and a symbol in the secular religion of license. Just as people have lost sight of the awful and turbulent events leading up to the American Civil War, so too have historians lost sight of the muddled and tangled mess that led to the Magna Carta. Both have become golden legends that escape critical thought.
John C. Wright overlooks all of the real facts–as do most Americans who extol The Charter. It is easy and satisfying to grab a hold of the fantasy, reverie, and daydreams of our fabricated heritage. But this is not something that an intellectual Catholic ought to do. When summoning heroes for our natural rights, Catholics ought to seek out good and wholesome jurists and advocates, such as Bartolome de Las Casas, whom I spoke about earlier.
Why a Catholic such as John C. Wright would grasp on to this piece of Americanist lore is beyond me. Yet, he does. Many Americans hold tightly onto their narrative of the Magna Carta. In fact, Wright has grown so attached to this golden legend, that he even mentions it in this year’s Christmas article:
“The War on Christmas is waged because they hate the spirit of America. They do, but that is not the full answer. They hate whence that spirit comes. America, like it or not, is based on ideals springing from British Common Law, including the Magna Charter. English Common Law is based on Roman Canon Law, which is based on Biblical laws and principles.”
Wright’s mistaken notion of The Great Charter’s almost-holy incorruptibility is as blind to the reality of history as is the concept of Thomas Nast’s mid-1800s characterization of St Nicholas. The two myths, sure, are distinctly American–but they are also way off base from reality. This love affair for the Magna Carta is a misrepresentation that has now become an institutionalized cliché.
The legacy of the Magna Carta is stained in blood, just as are the legacies of our American Revolution and the French Revolution–and really, most revolutions. And, for me, it is no wonder that the mythology of the Magna Carta is held tightly to the breasts of Protestants, anti-royalists, and Freemasons. The actions of the barons that year in 1215 hold great appeal to men who desire to subvert authority.
The barons were not trying to restore their English patrimony with their force and violence. They were trying, knowingly or not, to erect a better social order for themselves and the English aristocracy. They wanted theirs. They were hungry for short-term gains. These are not the actions of legendary figures, but this was certainly the behavior of what would later become a new class of unstoppable English oligarchs.