Edmund Burke and Magna Carta

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.

Burke opens chapter nine by contrasting the history of ‘political and military relations’ with the history of the law. The first is about ‘ambition and violence’, the second on a more elevated level is about ‘justice’. He remarks that ‘surely there cannot be a more pleasing speculation than to trace the advances of men in an attempt to imitate the Supreme Ruler in one of the most glorious of His attributes, and to attend them in the exercise of a prerogative which it is wonderful to find intrusted to the management of so weak a being.’ This is a paramount prefatory statement.

Man’s reason, as it is applied to the law, is a reflection of man’s status as a being made in the image and likeness of God. Second, guiding man’s reasoning about the law is the eternal law of God conveyed to man through the natural law. The supervising function of the natural law over the concrete arrangements of men in society will be a constant refrain through Burke’s political speeches and writings. Having indicated that the state’s positive law must answer the supreme norms of the natural law, Burke embarks on giving an account of the development of the Anglo-Saxon law. His account takes him up to the Norman conquest. The fragment ends with an instructive summary of the survey he has completed:

‘Hitherto we have observed the progress of the Saxon laws, which, conformably to their manners, were rude and simple – agreeably to their confined situation, very narrow – and though in some degree, yet not very considerably, improved by foreign communication. However, we can plainly discern its three capital sources. First, the ancient traditionary customs of the North, which, coming upon this and the other civilized parts of Europe with the impetuosity of a conquest, bore down all the ancient establishments, and, by being suited to the genius of the people, formed, as it were, the great body and main stream of the Saxon laws. The second source was the canons of the Church. As yet, indeed, they were not reduced into system and a regular form of jurisprudence; but they were the law of the clergy, and consequently influenced considerably a people over whom that order had an almost unbounded authority. They corrected, mitigated, and enriched those rough Northern institutions; and the clergy having once, bent the stubborn necks of that people to the yoke of religion, they were the more easily susceptible of other changes introduced under the same sanction. These formed the third source –namely, some parts of the Roman civil law, and the customs of other German nations. But this source appears to have been much the smallest of the three, and was yet inconsiderable. The Norman Conquest is the great era of our laws. At this time the English jurisprudence, which, had hitherto continued a poor stream, fed from some few, and those scanty sources, was all at once, as from a mighty flood, replenished with a vast body of foreign learning, by which, indeed, it might be said rather to have been increased than much improved…’ As we shall see, this passage makes explicit Burke’s purpose in the chapters of the Abridgment, particularly the chapter on King John’s reign.’

Burke was no different from many historians who say that King John was one of the worst of the English kings. He was unsparing of John’s faults. John’s father, Henry II, appointed John Lord of Ireland to give him some experience of royal duty. John, Burke writes, was ‘full of the insolent levity of a young man of high rank without education, and surrounded with others equally unpractised, he insulted the Irish chiefs…ridiculing their uncouth garb and manners.’ It was all that Henry’s administrators could to do to appease the anger of the Irish chieftains and divert serious political disruption. When Henry was ailing John ‘joined in the rebellion of his brothers, with so much more guilt as with more ingratitude and hypocrisy. During the reign of Richard [his brother] he was the perpetual author of seditions and tumults.’ Despite this poor record, Richard I, who was without issue, designated John as his successor. There was some challenge over John’s claim to the throne from from Arthur, son of Constance of Bretagne, by Geoffrey, the third son of that monarch. Arthur had the support of Philip II, King of France.

The majority support was for John, however, including that of ‘Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Glanville, the chief justiciary, and by them the body of the ecclesiastics and the law.’ Only the barons were against the choice of John whom they ‘knew and hated.’ Burke stresses the chief concern of the barons in the relationship with King John:

‘But though [the Barons] were not able to exclude him from the succession, they had strength enough to oblige him to a solemn promise of restoring those liberties and franchises which they had always claimed without having ever enjoyed or even perfectly understood.’

The liberties and franchises were those arising from settled arrangements or long held agreement. Burke accuses the barons of a fundamental lack of understanding of the sort of agreement that guaranteed those liberties and franchises.

John ascended the throne in 1199. In 1202, he was drawn into conflict with Philip over England’s long-held possessions in France. This conflict would be ongoing with Philip’s clear intention to ruin John and take what he could. At the commencement of his campaign, John summoned his English barons ‘to attend him into France; but instead of a compliance with his orders, he was surprised with a solemn demand of their ancient liberties.’ That was not what John wanted to hear. Burke comments that ‘it is astonishing that the barons should at that time have ventured on a resolution of such dangerous importance, as they had provided no sort of means to support them.’ He continues,

‘The king, sensible of the weakness of his barons, fell upon some of their castles with such timely vigour, and treated those whom he had reduced with so much severity, that the rest immediately and abjectly submitted.’

He levied a severe tax upon their fiefs, then raised an army without the help of the Barons and crossed over to his possessions in France. He met with initial success defeating the armies of Breton and Poitevin and taking the Duke of Brittany prisoner. He then retreated to his castle at Rouen.

The king of France, accusing John of murdering his nephew, summoned John to Paris to be tried by his peers. John refused the invitation and as a consequence was ‘sentenced for non-appearance in the Court of Peers.’ Philip had the excuse to enter Normandy with a great army to arrest John. While Philip marched on, taking all before him, John spent his time at Rouen ‘in the profoundest tranquillity, indulging himself in indolent amusements.’ He issued empty threats but did nothing to counter Philip’s conquering march.

The barons, angry and embarrassed by their king’s behaviour returned to England and ‘there spread the report of his unaccountable sloth and cowardice.’ John followed them and instead trying to repair his reputation, ‘he exacted a seventh of their movables from the barons, on pretence that they had deserted his service. He laid the same imposition on the clergy, without giving himself the trouble of seeking for a pretext.’ John’s failure to challenge Philip ended up in the loss all England’s possessions in France by 1204. He would spend the next decade trying to regain those lands. In the meantime, John, putting no brakes on his erratic behaviour, heedlessly indulged himself with the wives and daughters of the nobility.

In 1205, Hubert Walter the Archbishop of Canterbury died. Hubert Walter had been a great supporter of John’s claim to the throne. According to Burke, ‘the person who filled the See of Canterbury, which stood on a level with the throne itself, was a matter of the last importance.’ This is a detail of the utmost significance in this narrative, an historical detail that is absent from the present media commentaries on Magna Carta. The pre-Reformation Archbishop of Canterbury possessed enormous lay and clerical influence.

A dispute arose about who would succeed Hubert Walter. Three groups, including John’s, agitated for their choice, and appealed to Pope Innocent III to settle the question. The pope ordered a new election recommending ‘to their choice Stephen Langton, their countryman,–a person already distinguished for his learning, of irreproachable morals, and free from every canonical impediment.’ Note Burke’s fulsome approval of the character of Stephen Langton.

John refused to submit to the Pope’s order. England was laid under an interdict – a drastic move by the Pope. In effect, he shut down the Church in England suspending its salvific sacraments. John retaliated by confiscating Church property and encouraging violence against its priests.  Terrible confusion prevailed. Innocent III far from backing down increased pressure on John. John demanded a demonstration of loyalty from the Barons. The Pope excommunicated John. It was the beginning of a process that resulted in the utter humiliation of John and his submission to the Pope as his vassal. John agreed to hold his kingdom as a fief of the papacy.

Among the terms of submission, was the acceptance of Simon Langton in the crucial position of the Archbishop of Canterbury (1208). An excerpt from chapter 8 of the Abridgment follows. Particular attention should be given to the role of Simon Langton in one of the most determining events of Western Civilization.


THAT ARCHBISHOP [Simon Langton] no sooner came into the kingdom than he discovered designs very different from those which the Pope had raised him to promote. He formed schemes of a very deep and extensive nature, and became the first mover in all the affairs which distinguish the remainder of this reign. In the oath which he administered to John on his absolution, he did not confine himself solely to the ecclesiastical grievances, but made him swear to amend his civil government, to raise no tax without the consent of the Great Council, and to punish no man but by the judgment of his court. In these terms we may See the Great Charter traced in miniature.

A new scene of contention was opened; new pretensions were started; a new scheme was displayed. One dispute was hardly closed, when he [John] was involved in another; and this unfortunate king soon discovered that to renounce his dignity was not the way to secure his repose. For, being cleared of the excommunication, he resolved to pursue the war in France, in which he was not without a prospect of success; but the barons refused upon new pretences, and not a man would serve.

The king, incensed to find himself equally opposed in his lawful and unlawful commands, prepared to avenge himself in his accustomed manner, and to reduce the barons to obedience by carrying war into their estates. But he found by this experiment that his power was at an end. The Archbishop followed him, confronted him with the liberties of his people, reminded him of his late oath, and threatened to excommunicate every person who should obey him in his illegal proceedings. The king, first provoked, afterwards terrified at this resolution, forbore to prosecute the recusants.

The English barons had privileges, which they knew to have been violated; they had always kept up the memory of the ancient Saxon liberty; and if they were the conquerors of Britain, they did not think that their own servitude was the just fruit of their victory. They had, however, but an indistinct view of the object at which they aimed; they rather felt their wrongs than understood the cause of them; and having no head nor council, they were more in a condition of distressing their king and disgracing their country by their disobedience than of applying any effectual remedy to their grievances.

Langton saw these dispositions, and these wants. He had conceived a settled plan for reducing the king, and all his actions tended to carry it into execution. This prelate, under pretence of holding an ecclesiastical synod, drew together privately some of the principal barons to the Church of St. Paul in London. There, having expatiated on the miseries which the kingdom suffered, and having explained at the same time the liberties to which it was entitled, he produced the famous charter of Henry the First, long concealed, and of which, with infinite difficulty, he had procured an authentic copy. This he held up to the barons as the standard about which they were to unite. These were the liberties which their ancestors had received by the free concession of a former king, and these the rights which their virtue was to force from the present, if (which God forbid!) they should find it necessary to have recourse to such extremities.

The barons, transported to find an authentic instrument to justify their discontent and to explain and sanction their pretensions, covered the Archbishop with praises, readily confederated to support their demands, and, binding themselves by every obligation of human and religious faith, to vigor, unanimity, and secrecy, they depart to confederate others in their design. This plot was in the hands of too many to be perfectly concealed; and John saw, without knowing how to ward it off, a more dangerous blow levelled at his authority than any of the former. He had no resources within his kingdom, where all ranks and orders were united against him by one common hatred. Foreign alliance he had none, among temporal powers. He endeavoured, therefore, if possible, to draw some benefit from the misfortune of his new circumstances: he threw himself upon the protection of the Papal power, which he had so long and with such reason opposed. The Pope readily received him into his protection, but took this occasion to make him purchase it by another and more formal resignation of his crown. His present necessities and his habits of humiliation made this second degradation easy to the king. But Langton, who no longer acted in subservience to the Pope, from whom he had now nothing further to expect, and who had put himself at the head of the patrons of civil liberty, loudly exclaimed at this indignity, protested against the resignation, and laid his protestation on the altar. [A.D. 1214.]

This was more disagreeable to the barons than the first resignation, as they were sensible that he now degraded himself only to humble his subjects. They were, however, once more patient witnesses to that ignominious act,–and were so much overawed by the Pope, or had brought their design to so little maturity, that the king, in spite of it, still found means and authority to raise an army, with which he made a final effort to recover some part of his dominions in France.

The juncture was altogether favorable to his design. Philip had all his attention abundantly employed in another quarter, against the terrible attacks of the Emperor Otho in a confederacy with the Earl of Flanders. John, strengthened by this diversion, carried on the war in Poitou for some time with good appearances. The Battle of Bouvines, which was fought this year, put an end to all these hopes. In this battle, the Imperial army, consisting of one hundred and fifty thousand men, were defeated by a third of their number of French forces. The Emperor himself, with difficulty escaping from the field, survived but a short time a battle which entirely broke his strength. So signal a success established the grandeur of France upon immovable foundations. Philip rose continually in reputation and power, whilst John continually declined in both; and as the King of France was now ready to employ against him all his forces, so lately victorious, he sued, by the mediation of the Pope’s legate, for a truce, which was granted to him for five years. Such truces stood in the place of regular treaties of peace, which were not often made at that time. [A.D. 1215.]

The barons of England had made use of the king’s absence to bring their confederacy to form; and now, seeing him return with so little credit, his allies discomfited, and no hope of a party among his subjects, they appeared in a body before him at London. All in complete armour, and in the guise of defiance, they presented a petition, very humble in the language, but excessive in the substance, in which they declared their liberties, and prayed that they might be formally allowed and established by the royal authority. The king resolved not to submit to their demands; but being at present in no condition to resist, he required time to consider of so important an affair. The time which was granted to the king to deliberate he employed in finding means to avoid a compliance. He took the cross, by which he hoped to render his person sacred; he obliged the people to renew their oath of fealty; and, lastly, he had recourse to the Pope, fortified by all the devices which could be used to supply the place of a real strength, he ventured, when the barons renewed their demands, to give them a positive refusal; he swore by the feet of God (his usual oath) that he would never grant them such liberties as must make a slave of himself.

The barons, on this answer, immediately fly to arms: they rise in every part; they form an army, and appoint a leader; and as they knew that no design can involve all sorts of people or inspire them with extraordinary resolution, unless it be animated with religion, they call their leader the Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church. The king was wholly unprovided against so general a defection.

The city of London, the possession of which has generally proved a decisive advantage in the English civil wars, was betrayed to the barons. He might rather be said, to be imprisoned than defended in the Tower of London, to which close siege was laid; whilst the marshal of the barons’ army, exercising the prerogatives of royalty, issued writs to summon all the lords to join the army of liberty, threatening equally all those who should adhere to the king and those who betrayed an indifference to the cause by their neutrality.

John, deserted by all, had no resource but in temporizing and submission. Without questioning in any part the terms of a treaty which he intended to observe in none, he agreed to everything the barons thought fit to ask, hoping that the exorbitancy of their demands would justify in the eyes of the world the breach of his promises. The instruments by which the barons secured their liberties were drawn up in form of charters, and in the manner by which grants had been usually made to monasteries, with a preamble signifying that it was done for the benefit of the king’s soul and those of his ancestors. For the place of solemnizing this remarkable act they chose a large field, overlooked by Windsor, called Running-mede, which, in our present tongue, signifies the Meadow of Council – a place long consecrated by public opinion, as that wherein the quarrels and wars which arose in the English nation, when divided into kingdoms or factions, had been terminated from the remotest times. Here it was that King John, on the 15th day of June, in the year of our Lord 1215, signed those two memorable instruments which first disarmed the crown of its unlimited prerogatives, and laid the foundation of English liberty. One was called the Great Charter; the other, the Charter of the Forest. If we look back to the state of the nation at that time, we shall the better comprehend the spirit and necessity of these grants.


Burke wrote this account more than five hundred years after King John placed his seal on Magna Carta. He was a strong defender of the Established Church – at least in public. The penal laws were in operation severely restricting Catholics in England and reducing Catholics in Ireland to the status of serfs in their own land. He had every reason to downplay the crucial role of Catholic Archbishop Simon Langton in the events which led to the sealing of Magna Carta. He did not. He not only accurately recorded Langton’s role in Magna Carta but placed him at the centre of the development of English law, law arising from tradition and custom rather than abstract speculation.

It is significant that 800 years later most media commentaries have not mentioned or hardly mentioned Simon Langton or his role in Magna Carta. Such an omission is yet another example of the distortion of European history prevailing in Western educational institutions. But that is a subject for another occasion. At each commemoration of Magna Carta a toast should be raised to the most important player in this determining historical event. To Simon Langton, (Catholic) Archbishop of Canterbury.