The Christian roots of democracy’s most iconic document
by Thomas Andrew
Since the Magna Carta was a product of the deeply religious world of the Middle Ages, its underlying ideas are thoroughly Christian in their inspiration. Thomas Andrew has just published an essay for the Theos think tank in London, The Church and the Charter: Christianity and the Forgotten Roots of the Magna Carta. We asked him about the role of Christian thought in the development of this icon of modern democracy.
MercatorNet: The first clause of the Magna Carta guarantees the freedom of the Church. So why is Christian influence so little mentioned today?
Tom Andrew: In academic terms, there’s actually been something of a revival of interest in the role of the Church, and particularly Archbishop Stephen Langton, in writing and negotiating the Magna Carta. Just this week, new research has been published by a group of academics claiming that the Bishops of the English Church inserted their own scribes into the King’s courts to ensure that the Magna Carta was reproduced in accordance with the King’s promises.
But it’s certainly true that this academic interest has failed to filter through to popular thought. I think that’s largely because the simplest story is the easiest to grasp – the story of rebel barons and bad King John captures the public imagination.
But there’s also a sense in which we, as a nation, are fairly reluctant to acknowledge the influence of Christian faith in our political history. In our universities, the schools of political theory and the schools of theology are entirely separate entities, with very little cross-over. Given the influence of Christian theology on the development of Western political thought, I think this is a great shame.
What influence did the work of canon lawyers have on the formation of the Magna Carta?
The development of a theologically reflective and unified canon law in the 12th Century is possibly one of the most important steps in the history of the development of political thought, and laid the foundations for many of the ideas that we find in the Magna Carta. Of course you can’t trace the genesis of an idea directly back through history, but certainly many of the concepts that became critical aspects of canon law – the importance of due process, the limits of political authority, and the fundamentally egalitarian basis of law – are concepts and principles that we find enshrined in the Magna Carta.
It’s easy to forget that King John’s father, Henry II, had martyred the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a’Becket, only a generation before. Did Thomas’s posthumous moral victory influence the Magna Carta?
Certainly. The tensions between Church and King that had come to a head with the assassination of Becket reared their head again under King John. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was refused entry into England by King John, the Pope had proclaimed an interdict over all England – preventing priests from carrying out most of their duties. And even after Langton had finally been allowed back to Canterbury and the interdict lifted, many people in England saw him as a “new Becket” to challenge the authority of the King. Given that Becket had by now become “St Thomas” and a symbol of resistance to an unjust king, the tensions between King John and his Archbishop would have been fairly great..
Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a social conservative. How did he influence the more liberal view of the Magna Carta?
The whole experience of exile made Langton determined to protect and preserve the freedom and liberty of the English church from monarchical interference, and encouraged him to lend tacit (if not outright) support to the barons’ efforts. It was almost certainly Langton who inserted the first clause protecting the liberties of the church into the final version of the Magna Carta and his role as a negotiator was absolutely crucial. Under his leadership, the Church also played a vital role in guaranteeing that the Magna Carta was revived and reissued after King John’s death.
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