In my day job as legal business journalist it’s been pretty difficult to avoid Magna Carta commemorations this year, particularly since it’s coincided with furious debates over the continued existence of the Human Rights Act (HRA). Partisans of the HRA have invoked Magna Carta as a precursor to the Act; by contrast, David Cameron used it this month to push his stance that the UK needs a Bill of Rights. It’s all highly tendentious and entirely predictable, so the antidote for those with Runnymede fatigue is to read Lord Sumption’s astringent dismissal of the whole jamboree, characterising it ‘a distortion of history to serve an essentially modern political agenda’ and ‘high-minded tosh’.
Jonathan Sumption is a medieval historian and silk whose brilliance led to his appointment to the Supreme Court without the inconvenience of ascending through the lower courts (not something that particularly endeared him to some at the bar, but that’s another story). His speech to the Friends of the British Library in March this year gave some welcome context to Magna Carta. Sumption argues that its effect was limited, that the charter was closer to a private contract than a constitutional document; it did not provide for an independent judiciary and was aimed at protecting the financial interests of a small aristocratic class. Even the famous clause that demands that freemen be tried by their peers, Sumption argues, is born of a narrow grievance of the baronage on jurisdiction.
Most interesting to me, though, was Sumption’s characterisation of our modern uses of Magna Carta as a distinctively seventeenth-century creation – and more specifically, one by the jurist Sir Edward Coke. Sumption doesn’t have much time for Coke, calling him the ‘chief sinner’ in the ideological appropriation of the charter through his Institutes of the Lawes of England, written between 1628 and 1634 and published in separate volumes up until 1644. The Institutes became a set text for mid-century Parliamentarians who wanted to challenge what they saw as the King’s untrammelled power. It was Coke, argues Sumption, who rescued Magna Carta from relative obscurity in order to underpin his argument for the sovereignty of Parliament.
Sumption’s argument that the seventeenth century created the Runnymede narrative is compelling, but begs wider questions. Why are we so obsessed with Magna Carta, and yet refer so little to the period that essentially created the myth of a high-minded revolt? While school students learn about the French and Russian revolutions, the English revolution is barely studied at all. I loathed the Civil War in history lessons in school because it was taught as a series of battles rather than an explosion of ideas; we spent a term on it, and the only thing that engaged me was hearing some bonkers Puritan names like Praise God Barebones. In fact, the first time I heard of the Diggers was not through alighting upon Christopher Hill but by listening to Billy Bragg’s first album.
I’m consistently baffled why our only period of republicanism barely features in the school syllabus. It’s a particular mystery that Michael Gove, that arch-proponent of ‘English’ history, didn’t insist upon it when he was Education Secretary. The mid-seventeenth century not only sows the seeds of our political system, but is so imaginatively accessible. The explosion of pamphlet culture so much like the cacophony of the internet; huge theatrical setpieces such as sporting opening ceremonies rivalling the masque in their elaborate hymns to power; the rise of identity politics paralleling the godly certainties of the Calvinist elect.
Even theatrical treatments of this time are few. Two, to be precise: 55 Days, a great Howard Brenton play at Hampstead Theatre a couple of years ago which featured the wonderful Mark Gatiss as Charles and Douglas Henshall as Cromwell. It focused on the trial of the king, and cutely, the auditorium was divided into two; on booking your seats, you were asked to pick the Royalist or Parliamentarian side.
The National Theatre has recently presented a revival of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, directed by Lyndsey Turner. Originally written in 1976, the play deliberately restages Civil War as history lived by the common people, and Royalists are barely referred to. The entire stage is turned into a giant banqueting table laden with fruit and candelabras (it’s a fantastic set by Es Devlin), and that table itself later turns into the ground that is being dug by the people appropriating land for the common purpose. The play loosely follows trajectory of Briggs (Trystan Gravelle) from raw Parliamentarian recruit to a man retreating into isolation and desolation on the collapse of the republic, and is peppered with scenes in which Ranters, Levellers and Diggers argue, prophesy and scrabble for existence in a world turned upside down.
It’s intermittently engaging. The most successful sequence is a piece of verbatim theatre that occurs just before the interval with the dramatisation of the Putney Debates of 1647. The Putney Debates were put on by soldiers of the New Model Army and chaired by Oliver Cromwell (Daniel Flynn) and included such radical notions of one man, one vote and a complete rethinking of the English constitution. It was during the Putney Debates that Thomas Rainsborough, the soldier and Leveller, famously declared: ‘It seems to me that the smallest Hee that is in this kingdom hath a life to live as the greatest Hee’. In Churchill’s play, the radicals are matched in passion and rhetoric by General Ireton (Leo Bill), who defends property as a cornerstone of suffrage and of social stability. The scene doesn’t just work because it is adversarial; it works because the ideas are still exciting now.
Ordinary people – the rank and file of the New Model Army – were actually working through new ideas about how society should be shaped. Even now, rereading excerpts from the Debates fills me with awe. It was a time when everything was up for grabs; in eighteen months there would be a republic, and in 12 years the republic was gone. Magna Carta seems very wan in comparison.