The Church and the Charter: the forgotten roots of Magna Carta

The popular story of the Magna Carta – of rebel barons forcing the hand of the tyrannical King John – is well known. But what is often lost in the tale of Bad King John is the crucial role played by Christianity in the formation and preservation of 'The Great Charter of the Liberties of England'.

Despite their importance to the history of the Magna Carta, neither the practical contribution of the church, nor the principled contribution of Christian theology, have received much attention beyond relatively small academic circles. The Church and the Charter puts these forgotten Christian contributions right back at the heart of the Magna Carta’s story. In exploring the difficult historical relationship between the religious and secular authorities in England, it assesses how and why the church helped place certain limits on the powers of the English monarch. In practical terms, it demonstrates the role played by the 'new Becket', Archbishop Stephen Langton, who was so crucial to both the emergence and the survival of the 1215 Magna Carta. More significantly, however, it explores the ideological relationship between Christian theology and the most celebrated of the ideas that came to be enshrined in the Magna Carta – ideas about the importance of due process, the legitimation of arbitration in the affairs of the king, and the extension of rights language to all free men. It argues that these were notions rooted, not in secular thought, but in a medieval theology that had been profoundly affected by the development of canon law.

In the year in which we mark its 800th anniversary, The Church and the Charter shows that the Magna Carta is a document shaped by the history of religious thought, just as much as it is an expression of 'secular' demands. And it deserves to be remembered and celebrated as such – as a seminal document in the development of political thought that owes a great debt to both the political clout of the English church, and to the ideological reflections of Christian theology.

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© 2015 Theos