How the Magna Carta works in modern Britain

Britain lags behind the U.S. in the creation of fringe political groups. No one’s tried to take over Parliament lately, probably because they’re afraid they’d succeed and have to run the country, which won’t be easy after the mess this lot have made. All this must disappoint the prime minister, who’s desperate to come up with a world-beating something–anything, please–so he can demonstrate his competence.

Competence, in case this isn’t already clear, is established by having the most something, the best something, the biggest something. It doesn’t matter what. We were going to have a world-beating Covid tracing app. We may have the most embarrassing one. That would explain why it’s not mentioned anymore.

Well, take heart: We may not be leading the world, but we do have a fair crop of nutburgers. In fact, a hairdresser in Bradford cited the Magna Carta as a justification for opening her shop (repeatedly) during lockdown.

So let’s talk about the Magna Carta. 


Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s camellia. They’re in bloom at this time of year.

Britain’s unwritten constitution

The Magna C. was signed in 1215, which makes it old even by British standards, and it’s part of the country’s unwritten constitution. Or it may be. The damn thing’s unwritten, so who’d know? If I slipped Green Eggs and Ham in, could anyone tell? Maybe I already have and no one knows it. Except me.

Or maybe I haven’t and only thought I did. I can’t tell either. It’s unwritten. 

But the Magna Carta was written down–more than once, in fact–so we can consult a document and figure out if it gives us the right to reopen a hair salon in the midst of a lockdown.

Did I just use the word salon?

Should we be worried about me?

You can find the argument the hairdresser’s drawing from in multiple spots on the internet if you’re not too picky about the company you keep. The idea is that article 61 of the Magna C. leaves anyone free to ignore any invalid law, a category defined (and I’m guessing here) largely by whether they piss off the person in question. 

The hairdresser isn’t alone in this. A few other small businesses have made the same claim but she’s the one I happened to find out about. I’d quote a longer segment of their argument but the people who write about it go on for so long and so murkily that they try my patience. 

So let’s skip them and go to the fact-checking site Full Fact, which summarizes their argument before it offers a reality check. The argument is that the Magna Carta not only says you aren’t bound by invalid laws, it says you’re free to rebel against them. 

Does that hold up? 

Well, no, but other than that it’s a great argument. 


The history

The Magna Carta was signed reluctantly by King John. He had a rebellion on his hands. He had no intention of keeping his word but that was okay because neither did the rebel barons. The agreement was that he’d sign the Magna C. and his barons would hand back London, which they held.

They didn’t.

On John’s side, the pope promptly invalidated the Magna Carta, as he’d expected. In spite of that, it  resurfaced over a period of years. Since it gave the aristocracy considerable power, they liked it, and it ended up being reissued several times after its first appearance (and invalidation). But here we come to the important point: Only the first version included Article 61. As a rule, kings and governments aren’t enthusiastic about giving their subjects (or citizens, if you tune in late enough) permission to rebel. They may rebel anyway–the governed can be a rowdy bunch–but if you’re running a country, or even if you’re only making vague gestures in that direction, you don’t want to encourage the governed by telling them rebellion’s not such a bad idea after all. 

This matters because it was one of the later, 61-less versions that went into the statute books and became law. The earlier version ended up in an era-appropriate version of the recycling bin and instead of becoming law became a historical curiosity. 

I have no idea whether they renumbered the following clauses. I’d assume they did but I haven’t checked. For all I know, the newly renumbered article 61 gives us the right to clip poodles so they look like ambulatory hedges.

Over the years, one bit after another of the version that did become law was repealed and dropped out of use. Of the original 63 clauses, only 4 are still in force


The legal stuff

All of that makes it less than wise to base your argument on article 61 if you go to court. But let’s look at what it says, even if it never became law and wouldn’t be in force anymore even if it had. 

“If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.

“Any man who so desires may take an oath to obey the commands of the twenty-five barons for the achievement of these ends, and to join with them in assailing us to the utmost of his power.” 

To (over)simplify that, it says that if we or our agents piss you off, four out of twenty-five barons can talk to us (or maybe that’s at least four but possibly all twenty-five speaking in unison; the wording strikes me as ambiguous, but I’m not a lawyer). And by us, of course, I mean me, since I’m the king and use the plural. If I don’t return them to a state of utter bliss, they can do highly unpleasant things to me until I do make them happy, after which they have to behave nicely again and go back to saying “Please” and “Thank you, Mr. King.” 

You can see why King J. wasn’t happy about signing that and why he crossed his fingers behind his back when he did. But even so, nothing in there grants the common people the right to assail him and seize his castles and generally be unpleasant. That’s granted only to 25 barons. The common people only get the right to follow the 25 barons–or presumably to talk to them about how pissed off their common selves are, although I wouldn’t want to bet a lot of money on the barons taking up their cause. 

By extension (and I’m extending the clause so far that it’s about to snap), the common people do not gain the right to cut hair during a lockdown unless the barons are cutting hair during a lockdown. And barons, I think we can pretty safely assume, do not cut hair. 

Is there a moral to this tale? Why yes, there is.

The moral is that depending on time, place, and circumstance rebellion may (or–please pay attention here, because it’s important–may not) be right and necessary, but if you do rebel you’d be wise not to count on getting permission from the government. You have to do it the old-fashioned way, which involves risking your liberty, your hair salon, and quite possibly your life. After the fact, your courage may become the stuff of legend, but it’s not likely to be fun in the moment. 

The hairdresser’s been fined close to £20,000 for repeatedly opening her shop, and she’s (reportedly–the paper doesn’t seem to have been able to confirm it) raised a lot of money to pay the fines through a crowdfunding campaign. She hasn’t seized any castles or assailed the queen, so she’s not following the exact wording of article 61.

40 thoughts on “How the Magna Carta works in modern Britain

  1. All of which goes to show both how badly history is taught here and also how important it is to have read and understood the history of the document you’re going to rely on if you think it’s going to help you when you break the law. I wish I could believe that other people aren’t crowdfunding her fine, but I suspect they are.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So the Magna Carta may as well have been written on a Magna Doodle for all it applies to anything? That certainly helped clear things up, and I will tolerate my pandemic hair for a little longer. Soon my hair will be long enough for someone to make me look like an ambulatory hedge. I will look forward to that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We probably should, but I don’t either. At the time, they were probably active enough on social media that we’d have known. Even though we’d have both been illiterate and wouldn’t have had an internet connection. By now, though, I think they’re best left to the experts.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The salon Lady sounds a lot like the Non-Maskers over here. Except at least she is trying to make a living. The non-maskers only scream about how it impedes their freedom. Presumably they also do not have driver’s licenses, or permits for the firearms they own,. and doubtless when they drive (without licenses) they don’t obey speed limits – or even stay off the sidewalks.

    I remember learning about the Magna Carta in sixth grade social studies (and then teaching about it, from the same Social Studies books, some 10 years later. But what I really .remember is “King John was not a good man/He lived his life aloof…” Apparently that is true.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It doesn’t sound like John was particularly good at making or keeping allies. Or at making war. Whether anyone can be a good man and be king is a whole ‘nother discussion.

      I don’t remember learning anything about the Magna Carta as a kid, although I must’ve because its name somehow lodged in my memory, but then I found our history books baffling–too much disconnected information but not enough information about any one thing to let me get any sense of it. So I’m sure they mentioned it, like the mentioned everything else they considered important, and told us nothing memorable.

      Sigh. I really do love history, which is why I get rabid about the way it’s taught.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Concerning what a person can or can’t do in the UK I thought that the Westminster parliament is sovereign with regard to telling us which laws we should follow or what we must do. Which is fine if you support the laws, that your government of the day is enacting, but not so great if you do not. Parliament can enact legislation on any subject matter it likes so long as it has the majority vote, but even more importantly it cannot bind its successors to those laws or that legislation.
    So technically and complicatedly even when parliament signs up to abide by international treaties and laws it is still giving its consent to go along with and if it chose to it could withdraw that consent legally in the UK while at the same time potentially breaking an international treaty or law. The brain boggles!
    On a more serious note though I really do need to get my hair cut. Everyday my hair looks more like that of Worzel Gummidge’s

    Liked by 1 person

    • So every time there’s an election, all previous laws become null and void? (Or just plain void. Or null.) Breaking and entering becomes legal, along with murder, mayhem, and jaywalking? That can’t be possible. I read somewhere (no idea where) that the famously unwritten constitution includes the entire mass of past law–all the ones that haven’t been repealed, at least.

      On a not necessarily lighter note, every time someone says they really, really need a haircut, I find myself looking at their photo and thinking, Nah, that looks okay. It takes a moment or three before I remember that the photo won’t necessarily grow hair in real time.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Doing it BC involved employing people to maintain massive libraries of files coded with incredibly long and tortuous index numbers. I know, because I was one such person, tasked with delivering said files in response to requests for them, and then filing them back again once Those-To-Whom-I-Tugged-My-Forelock§ were done with them. Until next time….

        § … and… we’re back to haircuts again….

        Liked by 1 person

        • The pandemic really is all about hair.

          The massive libraries don’t surprise me, or the incredibly long indexes. But anytime I try to figure out how anyone found anything, my brain wanders off somewhere to see if it can’t get a haircut. I know it all has something to do with those indexes, but —

          Sorry. How short did you want that?

          Liked by 1 person

    • Or, given how the barons lived, stay home and take care of their families. No, I don’t think the courts were impressed, and I expect she had trouble finding a lawyer to make that argument. If she even looked. One article I read ended with a quote from a legal expert of I forget what strike whose advice was, before you put together legal arguments “talk to a lawyer.”

      Liked by 1 person

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