The Magna Carta-a version for everybody in 1816


Charles James Fox still holding on tight to English liberties

The Magna Carta (or Magna Charta, as it was more usually spelt in the Regency Period) was not a particularly big deal in 1816. It has only 44 references in the British newspaper archive and even fewer (40) in its anniversary year in 1815. This includes a few references to the Magna Charta stakes, a race held near the historic Runnymede site in Egham .In a time when liberty and reform were constantly matters of discussion, the lack of references seems unusual. However, when it was mentioned, it does tell you a little about the spirit of the times.

A little like 2015, people seemed to be better informed about the spirit of the document, and their interpretations of it, than what it actually said .Indeed you could assume that hardly anybody knew what it said, and those who did know did not believe it to be relevant any more The statue of Charles James Fox, the Whig leader was unveiled in Bloomsbury with the document in his hand.

Ten years after Fox’s death, it was Whig members of Parliament mostly believed that the Magna Charta was a good thing, especially if it could be used to attack the system. The Alien Act of 1816 was introduced to allow the law to expel foreigners deemed dangerous. It had first being introduced in 1792 and some MPs were surprised that it was being introduced in peacetime. Did it not, asked some, break the 30th chapter if the Great charter of King John? –“Foreigners at peace with us should have free egress and ingress” It seems clear that the MPs were mostly using the commentary of the 17th century jurist Lord Coke rather than the document itself, and were more concerned with embarrassing the government rather than striking a blow for liberty-although the use of the Charter to restrict the monarchs prerogative may have been a bigger motive. Tory MPs riposted with “The Constitution was made for Englishmen not foreigners”-they believed that the Charter was part of the constitution, or thought it was convenient to do so, but did not agree about what it meant.

The simplicity of the document was admired by some.Earl Stanhope asked the Commons to revise statute law to have simpler headings-like the Magna Charta. It seems from the debates that it was the structure of the document rather than the content that he admired so much. There is little evidence thought the reports of 1816 that many people had read it.

William Cobbett believed that it could be used for taxation by consent, and therefore parliamentary representation before taxation. It would be very difficult to argue this from the actual text of the Charter; once again it is an interpretation of the text rather than knowledge of the original However, Cobbett regarded it as a good thing, often mentioning it in tandem with the Bill of Rights. He was scathing of those who relied on petitions to change the minds of those in power. Cobbett wanted action, and in a parallel with those petition warriors on the 21st century Internet, he commented…”might we ask if the Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights were won by the fireside?

So, on the whole, the establishment had a soft spot for the Charter without much understanding about what it said. When the Bey of Tunis introduced changes to the way his people were ruled, local British papers complimented it as the “Magna Charta of the Mediterranean”

However, both Whig and Tory were less impressed when the Charter was used in the Reform Societies. The conservative press condemned such toasts as “The Magna Charta, not as we have it on paper, but as our forefathers had it” –yet another, relatively meaningless comment for a document that was much more felt about than studied.