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Did She Die in Vain?
on 16 October 2012
1. In September of this year David Cameron was asked a couple of questions, on David Letterman's US chat show, about one of the seminal documents of English constitutional practice - the Magna Carta. He knew the date and venue where it was signed (1215 at Runnymede), but he said he did not know what it meant in English. The answer is listed in the first paragraph of the first page of this pocket-sized addition to Oxford's successful Very Short Introductions series (`Great Charter').
In a 1959 episode of comedic series Hancock's Half Hour - 'Twelve Angry Men' - Tony Hancock berates jurors with a couple of misguided questions, "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?" Disappointingly, this sober-minded introduction to this charter of liberty and political rights doesn't provide a reference to these oft-quoted humourous lines.
2. So what does it offer beyond the very basics of the subject?
Firstly, the author considers the origins of Magna Carta in the troubled reign of King John. Looking at his subject in its historical context, at great length, involves "tunnelling backwards from 1215 towards the origins of English law in Anglo-Saxon, Roman, and ultimately in even more ancient traditions." Unsurprisingly the author seems in his element here - he is, after all, a Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. Unfortunately, I have to say I found chapters on King Edward and Angevin kingship something of a dry read - but I guess that might well be related to my complete ignorance and disinterest in the intricacies of 13th century English politics.
Having expended 4 of the 6 main chapters detailing this Vincent, secondly, examines the importance of this British equivalent to declarations of the Rights of Men or of republican Independence in the eight centuries since its creation. This shorter sketching of its relevance in a modern setting works well - perhaps because he isn't overburdened with knowledge or jargon in the way a constitutional expert or practising lawyer may well be. Reading about how as a result of reform, by the 1980s, all but three-and-a-half of Magna Carta's original sixty clauses had been erased from the statue book; or, how it has virtually nothing to say of criminal procedures save for general references to outlawry in clause 39, and why it is still a topic that still excites confusion (it is still not known, for instance, if there ever was an `original' absolutely first version of the settlement, sealed in person by King John), I got a very clear sense of why our current prime minister and Hancock were ill-informed.
3. Vincent's work is a synthesis of already existing material, as he explains in his introduction: "Most of what follows is a restatement of truths established by other historians, as a result of nearly six centuries of scholarly investigation". It is an approach which is probably not going to be of great use to an academic audience.
4. Helpfully, the author also incorporates an accessible, 13-page English translation of the Magna Carta as an appendix, that he enthusiastically encourages the interested to peruse. (Sample quote: "47. All forests which have been affronted in our time will be disafforested at once, and river banks which we have enclosed in our time will be treated similarly.") Whilst an informative further reading section offers useful tips to those who want to delve deeper into what Vincent describes in his conclusion as, "that most paradoxical yet still most totemic of documentary relics".