King John and the afterlife of Magna Carta

Posted by Beth Whalley, Marketing Executive

King John MisrememberedThis is a guest post from Igor Djordjevic, author of King John (Mis)Remembered.

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As much as the name of King John is inextricably connected to the national celebrations and commemorations of Magna Carta across the world’s English-speaking democracies (and not always in a positive light), we need to remember that for the first four of the eight centuries of its existence not only was the document practically unknown to the vast majority of Englishmen, but that the king from whom it was wrested had a far different reputation in English cultural memory than he does today.

Magna Carta’s status as a fundamental legal document is largely the product of the efforts of a select group of seventeenth-century Common Lawyers and Parliamentarians who elevated it to paramount importance in the context of their own struggles against an uncompromising Charles I.

The Charter’s “afterlife” in popular culture as a statement of the subject’s rights and freedoms won by the force of medieval proto-liberals against a tyrannical and avaricious King John has little to do with the efforts of those Caroline lawyers, and almost nothing with the actual events of 1215. John’s “evil” character in today’s pop-culture was “created” by Michael Drayton and Anthony Munday in the 1590s after reading the fanciful account of John’s reign in the Chronicle of Dunmow republished by John Stow in 1580, and it is he who lurks in the shadows of the triumph of Magna Carta at the octocentenniary: a fictional character born at a time when neither the authors of popular genres nor their audiences seemed to be aware of Magna Carta.

Magna Carta has an important place in the history of law and constitution, but we should not lose sight of the narrow political interests of the group of rebellious barons led by Robert FitzWalter who forcefully extorted it from King John, invited a French invasion to achieve their aims, and even offered the English crown to the Dauphin Louis. If the birth of constitutional monarchy and democracy was the “end” of the implementation of Magna Carta, it was almost accidental; its writers probably would have considered it more of a “means” of curbing royal power and elevating their own than a set of rights to extend to all English subjects.

It is important to appreciate the importance of this document, but also to be aware that, like any text, it was subject to reinterpretation and recontextualization over time. We must resist the tendency to read back onto this document and the political figures involved in its inception fanciful notions about the Manichean struggle between conservative “control” and proto-liberal “resistance.”

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About the Author: Igor Djordjevic is Associate Professor of English at York University, Canada. He is also the author of Holinshed’s Nation (2010).

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