The Year of the Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

by Wesley Burnett

15 July 2005


In 1215, King John unwillingly signed the Magna Carta, a document fundamental to our concept of democracy. Perhaps you’ve suspected, as I have, that there’s more to the story, but haven’t been curious enough to wade around in the standard academic texts, those tomes that are enough to bore the bark off an oak tree.

1215: The Year of Magna Carta is just the ticket. It tells an exciting story of the Magna Carta, which begins in 1199 with John’s lust for Isabelle, certainly under 15-years-old and possibly less than 12. That marriage resulted in a war that cost John his French possessions. Modern historians think the destruction of the Anglo-Norman is okay since it gave us England and France to study, but back then, nobody in England was much amused.

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Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

The Year of the Magna Carta


Standard texts call John cruel, mean, licentious, faithless, weak-of-will, and cowardly, but they’re seldom explicit in detail. His obsessive shenanigans with Isabelle that cost John an empire reveal his licentiousness. Danziger and Gillingham don’t overdo Isabelle’s story, but they do expose John’s character for what it was. He was a beast.

A 20th century deconstructionist myth argues that the Magna Carta arises from a revolt by greedy, self-interested barons, which somehow makes it less relevant. Drawing on data from both history and archaeology, Danziger and Gillingham mount a furious attack on this silliness.

Danziger and Gillingham organize their book around the various clauses of the Magna Carta, a technique that demonstrates the entire country’s profound disillusionment with John. They start with the Englishman’s castle, the aristocratic home, and go on to look at the organization of the countryside, the town, the school, and the family. They turn to war and war games, to the organization and administration of the forests, to the church, the bureaucracy, the courts, and to England’s relations with the wider world.

Their analysis reveals the popular culture of those days and slays many mythical dragons along the way. The cultural and economic divide between the Norman who had arrived in 1066 and the conquered Anglo-Saxons no longer existed. There was absolute poverty aplenty, but any farmer with five acres or more could respectably support a family. Every man owed someone duties and obligations, but England was not a country of abject serfs. Graves reflect the prosperity. They are filled with men and woman of considerable stature with solid bones. They had sound teeth, which is more than can be said of today.

The church had no monopoly over literacy. The rebelling barons were highly literate, often in two or more languages. Some education was available to almost everyone, male and female, and almost any male willing to put up with the discipline and rigor could achieve higher levels of education. Everyone knew the Earth to be round, not flat.

England was a profoundly religious country where heretics rightly feared to tread. Some of the descriptions bring to mind the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But ironically, the common folk didn’t seem to give a blip for the Pope or his pronouncements, interdictions and excommunications.

But the most important myth Danziger and Gillingham dispel is that Magna Carta reflects only baronial greed and is, consequently, somehow unimportant. The barons created a document that touches every aspect of English life. It is a demand for complete reform. And it does matter. John begins his reign as an oriental despot, but by the time his reign ends, something entirely new has begun.

In 1215, however, the Magna Carta was a dismal failure. It arose almost by accident. Had the rebels had a claimant to the throne, they would have backed him. Whatever the outcome, rule by oriental despot would have continued and life would have gone on as usual. But the barons had no reasonable claimant. Instead, they justified revolt by demanding reform. When John signed the Magna Carta, he was signing a peace treaty with his barons. But he had no intention of keeping it. Even as the ink dried, the fighting resumed. Surely the Magna Carta was a failed experiment, an idea whose time had not come.

Well, not hardly. Copied and revised several times, the version of 1225 became effectively enshrined in British law by 1297. It stayed there, “The Bible of the English Constitution” as William Pitt called it, until the Law Reform Act of 1863. It came to North America as part of the Common Law that the colonists brought with them.

In America, students won’t abide even mentioning the word “history”. This is something of a worry, graduates who’ve no concept of the origin and evolution of their society. But mastering history is hard. History is fraught with content, facts that must be learned before reasonable discussion can proceed. So is mathematics or chemistry, and there’s no help for it. But when students object that the books that explain history are colossal, irrelevant bores, they aren’t far from wrong. Historians who want tenure write books, and those books follow a standard formula.

1215: The Year of the Magna Carta doesn’t follow the formula and won’t win anyone tenure anywhere. Not that that matters much. Gillingham is an established scholar who’s produced his share of academic tomes. His credentials are in good order, and he owes no one an apology. Danziger is a journalist who is accustomed to writing books people read. Together they have written a fascinating, entertaining book that explicates one of the most import documents in Western Civilization. While at it, they’ve brought to light the society that gave us that document. Their approach, history studied through its seminal events, is one that should become commonplace in writing popular history and in the writing of undergraduate and high school texts.