The hero of Magna Carta

Lord Judge

Lord Igor Judge, former Lord Chief Justice and now a Distinguished Visitor at The Dickson Poon School of Law, has co-authored a history of Magna Carta, the document written 800 years ago that established the principle that the king is subject to the law.

The book, Magna Carta Uncovered, explores the negotiations between King John and England’s unhappy barons, as well as Magna Carta's legacy.

Here Lord Judge shares some observations about the individual who, more than anyone else, made that legacy possible.

You've said there are heroes and villains in the story of Magna Carta. Who is the principal hero?

The real hero undoubtedly is William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who came from humble origins and served each of these difficult Plantagenet kings. He was John’s negotiator. The rebel barons trusted him because, whatever else you might say about Marshal, he stuck to his word. He was absolutely straight at all times.

What happened after Magna Carta was signed?

The charter was annulled by the Pope within 10 weeks of it being sealed by the King and anybody who saw to enforce it was going to be ex-communicated. John didn’t want to abide by it anyway because he said, rightly, that it wasn’t a contract at all because he was under duress. Fortunately, he soon died, leaving a nine-year-old to become king, and Pope Innocent died. Marshal was the person everybody turned to run the country. Marshal accepted the office of regent, and had the king crowned in Gloucester, since Westminster Abbey was not available because the French were there. This was the French invasion that nobody remembers in English history. London opened its gate to the French. Marshal immediately reissued the charter, with slightly different terms.

How long were the French around?

Louis of France split his forces and sent a significant proportion of it to attack Lincoln, which was loyal to the new boy king. Marshal went straight up north to Lincoln, won a battle at Lincoln, going into battle at the age of 70 without his helmet on – luckily his squire made him put his helmet on because it was dented after the battle. He won that victory, and then shortly after the French were defeated at sea. Marshal then immediately reissued the charter again.

So, it was reissued twice?

The significance is that in 1216 it was issued in desperation: everything was going wrong and the boy king was not going to win. We were going to end up with a French king. But in 1217, Marshal reissued it when he had won. All the major barons had been captured; Marshal could have enforced all sorts of terms on them but he didn’t. He reissued the charter and then he died. Without him the charter wouldn’t have lasted. It wouldn’t have been worth the vellum it was written on. But for him our history would have been very different. So, he’s the hero. 

Watch a video of leading experts examining the history, significance and relevance of the Magna Carta today.


Article posted: February, 2015



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