Saturday, August 6, 2016

Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty


Rating: 5 Stars

I heart Dan Jones. He is my favorite historian and if he wrote a book about watching paint dry, I would read it because he is the kind of writer who could make it so engaging you would not realize how boring the topic actually is.

Luckily, he writes about people and things that are already very decidedly NOT boring - namely my two favorite families - the Plantagenets and the Tudors - and the eras in which they lived.

Magna Carta is perhaps the most misused document in the history of the world. It had nothing to do with democracy, as Jones makes very clear, and everything to do with the rights of the barons who were opposing King John at an incredibly tumultuous time in the kingdom. Yet in the 800 years since its initial issue, it has threaded its way through a myriad of other documents, most notably the Declaration of Independence in 1776. As Jones recounts, even in 2014 then-Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that all the children in the UK would study the document because "...its principals shine as brightly as ever, and they paved the way for the democracy, the equality, the respect an the laws that make Britain" (pgs 198-199). Yet studying the actual text of the document itself (which you can do without going to DC or England, thanks to the fact that the original 1215 charter is included in its entirety in Appendix A) shows that was not its purpose at all. In fact, many of the clauses did just the opposite and its purpose was to limit the power of the king, as well as certain groups of people such as women and Jews (page 198). Yet this great myth has been perpetuated for years and years that Magna Carta is the basis of democracy, something the authors of it would definitely disagree with, and the idea would have been completely foreign to them.

Th author does a fantastic job taking us back in time to 1215 to see why the document was even written in the first place. Due to John's complete lack of ability to be a good king, the aristocracy took it upon themselves to put John in his place, so to speak. Naturally, John had no intention of adhering to the agreement signed that day at Runnymede. Perhaps this quote from the book best sums up John, better than anything I have read before:

"People loathed John. For all the attempts that have been made by historians to rehabilitate his reputation, any study of England's third Plantagenet ruler must account for the fact that he was a cruel and unpleasant man, a second-rate soldier, and a slippery, faithless, interfering, uninspiring king. It is true that at times John was no less ruthless than his brother Richard, nor any less manipulative than his father, Henry. Kings in this age were not supposed or expected to be nice...But if John's relatives shared some of his worst traits, he shared almost none of their best" (page 28).

I loved this book for many reasons. In addition to its in-depth look at the events leading up to, and after Magna Carta was first signed, I greatly appreciated the nod to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Some historians are quick to downplay her importance or dismiss her altogether, but Jones does not do that. Instead he says, among other things, "On March 31, 1204, John's spirited but ancient mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, died at eighty-two. Her formidable presence had kept some order in the empire's south, but her death prompted the King of Castile to invade Gascony" (page 33).

Another historical figure who is finally getting his due in general is that of William Marshal, who I also find highly fascinating. I am always curious how the early Plantagenet rulers can even be discussed without mention of the greatest knight in England's history, but Jones makes sure to note his presence and importance whenever necessary. He served five kings and did his best to ensure order was kept (or restored when John did something stupid) - Henry the Young King (crowned while Henry II lived, but never given any real power, thus leading to his rebellion. He died before his father though, and would never see his way to the throne), Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III.

Despite the short length of the book, 200 pages exactly of text discounting the appendixes, it is packed full of information. The pages are peppered with footnotes, with additional notes after Appendix C and before the substantial bibliography. There are two maps: one showing England in John's time and the other detailing the whole of the Plantagenet empire in what is now France, both at its height in 1189 and then after John lost several territories by 1215. Appendix A is Magna Carta 1215, Appendix B lists "The Enforcers of the Magna Carta" and gives a brief one-paragraph summary of each of the 25 baron who were supposed to enforce the charter as it was written, and Appendix C is a timeline of important events in the 900 years since Henry I became King of England and first granted a charter which listed similar clauses as Magna Carta. It also details some of the critical events leading up to 1215, as well as various events in the aftermath, including reissues of the charter by Henry III and Edward I. Also included are references to the charter in the following centuries up to 2015, the 800th anniversary.

While highly informative, this is still an easily accessible read. Dan Jones is a fantastic writer who conveys the importance of what he is writing without dumbing anything down. Highly recommended.

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