Judging by the reverence in which it is held, most people who are vaguely aware of Magna Carta’s place in British, and beyond’s, history think of it as some kind of a founding document of liberties of individuals against despotic monarchs and governments. It is somehow at the core of our constitution, and Englishmen abroad go all misty eyed at how much it has contributed to world jurisprudence, rights and democracy, fair play, the laws of cricket and medieval re-enactment societies.
If we acknowledge any controversy, it is probably that we realise it was a victory for a specific class of well connected nobles, but we spin a yarn about them being somehow representative of the struggle for freedoms for all ruddy-cheeked Englishmen. If we know a little bit more about it, we probably understand that it was something to do with property as well – that the king-government couldn’t arbitrarily seize property without due process and so on.
But I’ve just started reading Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater. The basic outline of the first couple of chapters, to where I have got so far, is that land enclosures fundamentally changed the rules of property. A shift from a complex network of mutual obligations in which, in theory at least, everyone in the social pyramid got a just share of resources on which at least to eek out a basic living, to an exclusive ownership system, in the process of which many were thrown off the land and made to be dependent on labouring for the new ownership class.
Ownership wasn’t, in other words, unconditional and part of one’s obligation near the top of the pyramid was to see to it that resources were available equitably to those below you. But some of these higher level landowners saw that they could be wealthier if they controlled all their land, particularly converting it to sheep farming, so where in the open field system a farm could support dozens of families, pasture monoculture needed fewer hands to care for it and higher profits for the landowner. So they came up with ingenious ruses, today we would probably call them tax evasion schemes, to get rid of tenants and serfs, to claim rights to common land and shared fields.
And this is where Linklater has sprung a new line on me, quite often the king would push back against this. After all, the king is ultimately responsible for the welfare of his subjects, and in the feudal model his obligations extend to everyone. And there was a constant tit-for-tat battle of royal legislation trying to close loopholes providing protection for tenants against arbitrary eviction and harassment by landlords on the one hand, and nobles finding new ways of enclosing land.
The game of brinksmanship played out between the barons and crown that culminated in our glorious foundational constitutional document of liberties and freedoms of loyal Englishmen, signed in the mud there in Surrey, on a spot now revered as the start of the democratic and civil rights of free peoples everywhere, was, he implies, really the king protecting the peasant classes against the landed aristocracy that wanted nothing less than to overturn the mutual obligations of traditional land holding, and eventually leave most of the rest of the population dependent on subsistence wage labour.
So, who really won Magna Carta? The politically connected, and, when united, powerful, elites intent on enriching themselves and ditching their obligations to the welfare of their social subordinates? Or the working masses, the real stout-hearted Englishmen, yeomen and tenant farmers, who faced destitution if successfully evicted?
Does it mark the beginnings of our civil and political liberties? On the contrary, it marks the start of the enslavement of most of the citizens, who have never since down to today had any real rights to the means of subsistence, or access to somewhere simply to sleep let alone support ones self. In a very real sense, Magna Carta could be much more appropriately viewed as the founding document of our political and housing crisis: the start of the shift away from land as the source of social obligation (i.e. taxes in the modern world), to one of landed and landless, politically connected and unconnected.
And, lest you think this is a medieval problem that democracy has later managed to control, that land distribution is much more equal now that so many of us can buy our homes and so on, still, today, 70% of our country’s landmass is owned by 0.3% of the population. Whilst those of us who cram in around centres of political and economic connectedness, in our big cities, pay exorbitant rates for a postage stamp of space sucked in by a system based on, and in many ways continuing even today through unjust expropriation by an elite, and the importance of capturing the political means to further sectional interests. At its most basic, we have never had restored the right to be able to claim a place on which to live and support ones self.
Is our national romance with Magna Carta so ill placed?
[I’ll be interested to see if Linklater share the view I’ve seen somewhere before that the seventeenth century civil wars were also a case of king defending lower classes from enclosure demands of the gentry in parliament.]