British constitutional historian David Starkey tells the story of Magna Carta — the first legal charter in human history to grant individual liberties and restrain government power under rule of law. [Dir: Christopher Spencer/ David Starkey/ 60 min/ Documentary/ Law & the Individual, Libertarianism 101, Resistance to Tyranny]
From the earliest of recorded times, and for thousands of years, mankind was largely ruled by kings, military leaders, and oligarchies — all of them with essentially unlimited power. Early societies had laws and legal processes, of course, but at the end of the day those at the apex of power could generally do what they liked, including exempt themselves from their own rules. All that changed on June 15th, 1215, in England. For the first time, a king was forced to sign a legal document that ceded specific rights to his subjects, establishing unprecedented legal principles such as equality before the law, no taxation without representation, and the whole idea that the king was not a law unto himself.
At first, much of Magna Carta benefited only nobles, and the king immediately reneged on the deal in any case. But over subsequent centuries, Magna Carta not only became a legal precedent that protected everyone alike, but also acquired the cultural gravitas of legend, that of ancient and long-established “rights of Englishmen,” rights that could be called upon at times of rebellion. Indeed, Magna Carta was not only specifically cited by American colonists in their revolution against King George but ultimately influenced the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.
You learn all that and much more in this thorough and engaging documentary, based on the book Magna Carta: The Medieval Roots of Modern Politics, by constitutional historian David Starkey, who also narrates the film. Starkey is an electrifying host. The man clearly understands the significance of what he is talking about, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He both leads the audience through the history of Magna Carta and demonstrates its continued relevance by relating it to events of the current day.
This documentary is well worth its 60 minutes – this is a history of which libertarians should take the time to be fully aware. Magna Carta is our history. I can think of no better introduction than this delightful and informative film.
External Reviews of David Starkey’s Magna Carta
“In David Starkey’s Magna Carta, he explained precisely what he felt the historical significance of that document has been…The main lesson, which Starkey illustrated by dipping into key moments in British history from the Civil War through the Glorious Revolution up to the present day, is that you need to keep a very close eye on the relationship between a state and its people…Have we, he asked, become complaisant about our long tradition of freedom from arbitrary state authorities? Are we sleepwalking towards authoritarianism?”
“We take our liberties for granted; they seem absolute and untouchable. But they are the result of a series of violent struggles fought over 800 years, which at times have threatened to tear society apart. On the frontline was…Magna Carta. Distinguished constitutional historian David Starkey looks at the origins of the Great Charter in 1215, designed to check the abuses of King John – and how it nearly died at birth.”
–BBC [Program Description]
“There’s little doubt Dr Starkey sees the current political climate, in which we seem happy to sacrifice liberty for security, as hostile to the Magna Carta. He ends with a warning. ‘In this 800th anniversary year,’ he says, ‘Parliament, our habits of political freedom and the idea of England herself are all facing acute challenge – perhaps the most fundamental of modern times. Will memory of the Magna Carta help to carry us through it?'”
How to See It
“Starkey turns even the more bureaucratic elements of history-making into a series of cliffhangers…And it makes it all remarkably readable.”
–The Independent: The true story behind the charter by David Starkey [Book Review]
–Book: The True Story Behind the Charter
Links About Magna Carta
“[Magna Carta] set out to do three things. Firstly, to bridle a king, John, who was dangerous and unpredictable and made his whim the law, and secondly, to make it impossible for any other king to rule in the same way. It was successful in both of those things. The third thing was the great change, and something very different: it set out to create machinery that absolutely bound any king in iron to its measures…It forced governments to behave differently, and set rules for good behaviour and, once the charter was reissued in 1225, it became impossible to impose general taxation without consent.”
–Cato [quoting British historian David Starkey]
“As the first charter to grant individual liberties under the rule of law, protecting the people against tyranny, Magna Carta is the most influential and far-reaching legal text the world has ever known. [It] was serially reinterpreted by later generations, becoming a totem in fierce political debates on the liberties of the people – it became a sacred text for English puritans of the Civil War, for the American patriots of the War of Independence, and for all those in the English-speaking world who have striven to build democratic rights and freedoms in the post-colonial age.”
–Book: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015
“The Charter of Liberties sealed by King John of England in 1215 AD, is routinely cited as one of the most important documents of our constitutional tradition. It ranks with the English Bill of Rights (1689), The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution in symbolic power…[This article] notes some of the specific points that make the Great Charter one of the most enduring documents of all ages.”
–Library of Congress: No Taxation Without Representation Circa 1215 AD, or, Magnai Carta: A Beginner’s Guide