This was a talk I gave on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
Edmund Burke devoted the eighth chapter in his Abridgment of English History, to King John’s reign. He records that it was near the end of John’s reign that the barons forced him to place the royal seal on the provisions and undertakings that form the document called Magna Carta, Latin for Great Charter. The Abridgment of English History is a little known and almost entirely disregarded work of Burke’s. He began it in 1757 as a commission from publisher Robert Dodsley. It was one of the projects taken up when he abandoned the law to devote himself to a literary career. He never completed the planned series of books. Indeed, chapter eight is the final full chapter. The eight chapters plus a fragment of chapter nine, ‘An Essay Towards An History Of The Laws Of England’, appeared after his death.
The reader has to take seriously Burke’s title to his work on English history because a distinct purpose is revealed in the process of abridgment. Through the sometimes sparse historical details, the reader finds a concentration on the effect of the different settled arrangements (like custom and tradition) on the development of the law governing the English people. The contrast, though nowhere near as explicit as in his later writings, is between law as developed out of the concrete circumstances of a people being a people and law as the product of abstract speculation. The fragment of chapter nine confirms this analysis.Continue reading Edmund Burke and Magna Carta