Magna Carta: A Thoroughly British Affair


      One of the aspects which makes Britain unique is its fascinating constitutional history stretching back hundreds of years. The Magna Carta – which it seemed David Cameron PM apparently stumbled to translate on the David Letterman show in the USA on Wednesday 26 September 2012 – is part of that history.

     In the Magna Carta, seventeenth-century lawyers were to find a basis for such fundamental privileges and rights as trial by jury, Habeas Corpus, equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and parliamentary control of taxation. The effects reverberated across the English-speaking world, and greatly inspired the Founding Fathers who were to establish The United States of America in the eighteenth-century.

   Looking back on this defining even in the history of the British Isles, it is important not be get unduly hung up over distinctions between what is specifically “English” or “Scottish” in the development of the mutually shared constitutional history. It is necessary to consider it all within its wider British context.

    That is to say, the Magna Carta is as much a Scotsman’s inheritance, as the Declaration of Arbroath is the inheritance of an Englishman. Within the unifying concept of Britishness, these documents belong to us all. If we insist on considering ourselves exclusively “Scottish” or “English” then we are deliberately excluding ourselves from the valuable inheritance from which we could otherwise be benefiting, and enjoying as fellow residents of these isles.

    Many Scots trace ideas of democratic sovereignty in Scotland back to the Declaration of Arbroath of 6 April 1320. However, it is a fact that 105 years before the Declaration, the Magna Carta of 15 June 1215, gave subjects rights and affirmed that monarchs rule because the people allow them to do so – and it was overseen and affirmed by a Scotsman, in a thoroughly British affair!

     Some people may try to argue that Magna Carta was a specifically “English” event, but the reality is that those who made their way to Runnymede to counsel and advise King John (the unscrupulous prince of Robin Hood fame) and to approve the document, came from all corners of the British Isles, including the “Celtic nations” of Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

     In the document, King John did not describe himself exclusively as King of England, but also as “Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou”. His feudal domains extended from the north of Scotland to the Pyrenees. Much of Europe was hinged on the power of one man and his decision regarding one document.

     The Magna Carta does not describe England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales as separate “nations” because King John did not view them as such. King John considered the people who lived in his fiefdoms as his “loyal subjects”.

     As well as being a British event, the Magna Carta could also be said to be European, in the sense that one of those present to approve it was from France. The old enemies were also clearly the closest of cousins for the Norman ruling class of England.

     The diversity of the participants and their varies backgrounds are shown in the charter itself, which lists among those loyal subjects present “Henry archbishop of Dublin…William Marshal earl of Pembroke…Alan de Galloway constable of Scotland…Hubert de Burgh seneschal of Poitou”.

     The Magna Carta was created “in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.” (1215)

     There were no “signatories”, to the document, as such. Their names were simply listed within the document, as being present.

   Alan de Galloway travelled from the south western area of Galloway to Runnymede to play his part. His home castle was located between Castle Douglas and Dalbeattie. The raised, flat area that remains there now is where his Castle once would have stood.

     He is described in the Magna Carta as “constable of Scotland” which meant that in great matters of the security of State he alone could act in King Alexander II of Scotland’s absence.

    Alan de Galloway’s second wife was Margaret of Huntingdon, the daughter of King David. Margaret bore him a daughter, Devorgilla, who became the wife of John Balliol of Barnard Castle, after whose death she drafted the Charter of Balliol College, Oxford – which she established on 22 August 1282.

    In summation, the creation of Magna Carta – the Great Charter which forever change the future of Europe and the world and led to the development of democracy – was a thoroughly British affair. As a result, it is a common heritage in which all Britons can rightly take pride.

By Alistair McConnachie

 (Read more from Alistair McConnachie at A Force for Good)