Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter by Dan Jones
|Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter by Dan Jones|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: Surely the most colourful, and probably the most definitive, book on this subject you would ever need to prime yourself ready for the 800-year celebrations.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 144||Date: December 2014|
|Publisher: Head of Zeus|
For what do we – and by courtesy of a lengthy timeline in history, would the Americans likewise – most likely owe thanks to a spigurnel? What is the most revered legal document in history, which sets out the rights of man – but also has time to talk about widows' rights, fish traps, and to be both sexist and to discuss the importance to people's estates to debts owed Jewish moneylenders? What will probably be the only notable historical experience of Britain in 1215, when we finally get diverted from thinking about WWI and discuss the 800 years of something else, even though the authority of no less than the Pope declared it null and void within ten weeks of its being finished?
The answer to all of the above is, of course, Magna Carta. Note the lack of the definitive article – the only thing I could think of that was missing from this brilliant book was anything on the nature of the charter's name – when it was first deemed Magna, for one, considering other such documents were flying left and right at the time. But that time is expertly observed – get your heads round the family tree of British rulers just a second and you're away, with most of the first half of the book setting the scene for the creation of the text. The country had had too much of being taxed by vindictive, easy-come-easy-go rulers in constant battle with their French counterparts, and/or on Crusade, and the barons were revolting as a result.
In trying to get a legal safety net for them, they and the Royal side came up with Magna Carta, which would never have been signed by King John, as he would merely have had his seal fixed to it, and if he ever did write anything by his own hand it's not survived. With the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time the Charter sets out that the Church would be freely run, before leaping into inheritance laws. It can only look unusual without context, as it continues to be diverse – one moment it births the ethos of trial by one's peers (but only for peers of the realm) and the liberties of the common man against unlawful application of justice, the next it apologises for the previous two Plantagenet kings, and declares that everyone will be safe from having to build unnecessary bridges.
(The sexism I mentioned earlier is that nobody can be had for murder on a woman's say-so unless she were the bride of the victim – anyone else and it's not a trustworthy accusation, clearly.)
After the context comes the text itself, and it's one of those rare instances of something that is so major, so manifestly important to the world's cultures – and actually quite brief and understandable – yet something hardly any of us will have read. It is no clear-cut written constitution, although it has been honoured, sworn to and quoted by many people since, and the most potent phrases bear much common ground with more modern bills of rights. We also get biographies of the lesser people involved – the people referenced in it as witnesses, and the 25 chief players the barons had as collateral in case any of the Carta was reneged upon. Such sections may not be perfect for the lay reader, but what has gone before is just superb in telling us how and why this manuscript is so famous and so vital. The illustrations are great, the clarity of the writing is immaculate, and I really cannot fathom, even at this stage of my writing a few good months before the actual anniversary, another book coming along that will tell the story better. It's succinct, it's intelligent, and it recognises the length a book on this theme needs to be – neither briefer nor more detailed than the one we have here. As such I would recommend everyone take any lengths to gen up on the imminent, significant centenary happenings with this significant book.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
To Defy A King by Elizabeth Chadwick is a novel concerning some of the people involved in the Magna Carta, but for more factual writing you might like Stand and Deliver: A Design for Successful Government by Ed Straw, which shows how far we remain from the ideal political world and a constitution for all.
You can read more book reviews or buy Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter by Dan Jones at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter by Dan Jones at Amazon.com.
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