When Magna Carta passed its 800th anniversary a few years ago, it was clear that its legacy was hotly contested by those who could be called the “celebrators” as against the “debunkers.” The celebrators note the importance of the document as the progenitor of the idea of limited government and the rule of law (including and especially in England and the United States), while the debunkers counter that Magna Carta’s image today is largely the product of nostalgic myth-making (see this op-ed piece, for example).
Here is the paperback edition (the more affordable edition!) of a book that sheds new light on the uses of Magna Carta in the 400 years following its creation: The Reinvention of Magna Carta: 1216-1616 (CUP) by Sir John Baker.
This new account of the influence of Magna Carta on the development of English public law is based largely on unpublished manuscripts. The story was discontinuous. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries the charter was practically a spent force. Late-medieval law lectures gave no hint of its later importance, and even in the 1550s a commentary on Magna Carta by William Fleetwood was still cast in the late-medieval mould. Constitutional issues rarely surfaced in the courts. But a new impetus was given to chapter 29 in 1581 by the ‘Puritan’ barrister Robert Snagge, and by the speeches and tracts of his colleagues, and by 1587 it was being exploited by lawyers in a variety of contexts. Edward Coke seized on the new learning at once. He made extensive claims for chapter 29 while at the bar, linking it with habeas corpus, and then as a judge (1606–16) he deployed it with effect in challenging encroachments on the common law. The book ends in 1616 with the lectures of Francis Ashley, summarising the new learning, and (a few weeks later) Coke’s dismissal for defending too vigorously the liberty of the subject under the common law.