Magna Carta and Christian Culture

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The significance of this document is emphasized by a recent controversy: in October of 2015, Chinese authorities blocked an exhibition of a rare parchment copy of the charter at Beijing’s Renmin University. China’s authoritarian government apparently balked at the potential influence of widespread interest in this Latin manuscript, in a country where those advocating the rule of law, such as lawyer Xu Zhiyong, face arrest.[1]

Was this merely a political dispute? In a country where Chinese religion permeated the government for centuries, complete state control of the life of the people has long made sense there. That legacy continued after the communist takeover in 1949. Officially atheist, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) Chinese communist leaders attacked traditional religion and encouraged a new religion centered around Mao Ze-dong, chairman of the party, complete with rituals, worship, a sacred text, conversion, symbols, and labeling of heretics.[2] While this political religion has declined since then, the Chinese government still attempts to act as a religious authority, as in its exclusive claim to appoint the legitimate successor to the Dalai Lama and to oppose the Vatican’s authority to appoint bishops—the very issue that ignited tension between church and state in medieval England that Magna Carta sought to address.

The refusal to exhibit the Magna Carta in China reveals a stark divergence in worldviews. In trying to understand the reasons for the disproportionate influence of the West in the modern world, some Chinese scholars and politicians have come to recognize Christianity as a central formative influence in Western culture. One Chinese academic, Zhuo Xinping, has even argued that the Christian understanding of transcendence played a central role in the acceptance of pluralism, human rights, and the rule of law in society and politics in the West.[3] The Magna Carta proves Xinping’s point. It’s Christian and feudal context really did play a role in the acceptance of these political and social principles. Practical, self-interest and defense of long-standing custom undoubtedly motivated the nobles who confronted King John.

However, historical research reveals that churchmen such as Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, helped initiate, mediate, and protect the Magna Carta. What’s more, the Magna Carta arose in a specifically Christian context in which saints such as Thomas Becket stood up to royal authority at the risk of their lives. Because the principle of representation gained a new prominence in English politics through the influence of the new Dominican order, as Ernest Barker argued in The Dominican Order and Convocation: A Study of the Growth of Representation in the Church during the Thirteenth Century, one is further reminded of the need to study the Magna Carta and its Christian context as an organic whole. The Magna Carta did not arise out of thin air but out of feudal and Christian traditions of thought (particularly theology and canon law) and practice (e.g., the example of Becket and of the Dominicans). It represented a moment when a specifically Christian society attempted to live out its ideals in the political realm. Examining this history sheds light on the conflict of worldviews over this document in twenty-first century Beijing.

The barons of medieval England clashed with their king over taxes, inheritance laws, and the use of natural resources such as timber and fish. John had sought to increase his power through the royal court system and its fees. This invited corruption, and, combined with his extortionate taxes to fund his disastrous war in France, brought the country to civil war and the brink of financial collapse. In 1215 the barons seized London, forcing the king to meet them on the fields of nearby Runnymede to negotiate the Magna Carta.

Three principles underlay the diverse provisions of the charter, Thomas Andrew points out in The Church and the Charter: the importance of adhering to due legal process through the “judgment of peers,” the legitimacy of the barons to check royal power, and the extension of rights to “all free men.”[4] Some saw these principles as strange innovations, as evidenced by a poem discovered in 2014 at the British Library. A monk at the Scottish monastery of Melrose heard about Magna Carta and, while acknowledging King John’s abuses, he wrote in Latin in the pages of the Melrose Chronicle: “A new state of things begun in England; such a strange affair as had never been heard; for the body wishes to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king.” Nonetheless, rooted in earlier feudal custom, these principles nevertheless emerged in this document with a particular clarity and would incubate through the following centuries to have a profound influence on conceptions of government, society, and the dignity of the individual far beyond England in the modern world. They would be specifically singled out for praise by Pope Benedict XVI when he visited Britain in 2010.[5]

The ecclesiastical and theological background of Magna Carta and its principles is less well known, even though it’s very first provision guaranteed that the “English Church shall be free.” The freedom of the Church was evidently a high priority at the time. Even to this day the Magna Carta has been cited as precedence for religious freedom, as by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012) which declared unanimously that federal discrimination laws do not apply to the selection of religious leaders by religious organizations.

Much more than today, church-state tensions dominated medieval Europe. Ever since the Investiture Controversy of the early twelfth century the growing influence of the Church sought to check the power of the state. Kings and emperors had grown used to investing bishops with their titles, lands, and authority, allowing them to influence and control the Church at the highest levels. Ecclesiastical leaders fought back. In England, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, refused to consecrate the bishops appointed by Henry I. Their disagreement was settled by the Concordat of London in 1107 that more clearly distinguished between the spiritual realm of the priest and the temporal realm of the king. Nevertheless, tension in England continued, culminating in the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, by King John’s father, Henry II, in 1170. Becket was viewed as a martyr and a symbol of anti-monarchical sentiment, and it was in that context that King John appeared on the scene.

When John tried to foist his own candidate on the archbishopric of Canterbury, Pope Innocent III rejected him. This led to the election of Stephen Langton, who had spent much of his life studying in Paris. John refused to consent to his appointment and so the pope excommunicated the king and placed the country under interdict in 1208. The king caved, and Langton entered the country. As archbishop he took Thomas Becket as his role model and started working to protect the Church against future royal intervention.

Meanwhile, despite his earlier excommunication, wily King John appealed to the pope in 1213 to help his cause in trying to control the English barons. In a breathtaking move, he submitted his kingdom as a fiefdom to the pope, thereby securing papal protection. This could have been a political masterstroke, Andrew notes, as the barons now had to direct their demands to the pope, who had an interest in protecting the status quo.[6] However, John, thinking himself secure under papal protection, redoubled his efforts to gain wealth through exorbitant fines directed at the barons, and these continued abuses undid him in the end.

Langton began to mediate between the king and the barons. In his privileged position, invested with authority by the pope rather than by the king, and further protected by popular enthusiasm for the example of Becket, he was one of the few in England who could sympathize with the cause of the barons without fear of the king. In an alliance of the Church in England with the baronial representatives of feudal customary rights, King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta. Immediately afterward he sent messengers to the pope asking him to nullify it, which he did. But the barons would not accept this, and the leaders of the Church in England continued to support them and the Magna Carta by distributing copies in local parishes. Archbishop Langton played a central role in the 1225 reissue of the document, the version that would go on to become a central platform of English law. Langton’s actions put the considerable weight of the Church behind the charter, without which its reissue may never have happened, and the Magna Carta might have been consigned to the dust-bin of history, Andrew notes.[7]

These actions of Church leaders in England occurred against an intellectual background rooted in Christianity. The three principles of the Magna Carta mentioned above — due process, checking royal power, and the rights of “free men,” developed in a Christian feudal world. It is important to examine the first of these three principles, due process, against the background of developments in canon law during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that helped to establish peer judgment over trial by ordeal, human judgment over spurious claims to so-called “divine judgment,” reason over superstition, as the only legitimate form of judgment. Langton himself was deeply interested in the due process of law (peer judgment) out of a theoretical concern for the guilt of a monarch who arbitrarily decides to execute someone or go to war. In order to protect that person from mortal sin (executing an innocent person or starting an unjust war), there must be a “due process” that places that person’s judgment under the law, not above it. This theological concern for a monarch’s soul stiffened ecclesiastical defense at the time of the Magna Carta of the earlier feudal notion that the king really should be responsible to the law and to his subjects.[8]

Secondly, Andrew shows how the desire to check King John’s power correlated with new theological concerns about the legitimacy of authority in Church and state. Just as a pope who held heretical ideas or persisted in sin after due warning ceased to be pope at all, so too a king who violates natural law is no true king and can be legitimately opposed. So thought John of Salisbury, a man of cultivated intelligence who later served as Bishop of Chartres. He had earlier served as secretary to Becket’s predecessor to the archbishopric of Canterbury and was highly influenced by Becket’s saintly example of disobeying the royal will. The people simply do not have to obey a tyrant until he reforms his ways. This Christian context would likely have helped galvanize English churchmen early in the thirteenth century to support the Magna Carta and its provision to check royal power through an assembly of barons.[9]

Thirdly, the protection of customary rights of all “free men” reflected an awareness of the Magna Carta as protecting not just the few but the whole community of England. Andrew argues it was no coincidence that a more egalitarian understanding of rights developed significantly during the eleventh century. This occurred particularly in canon law, as newly systematized by Gratian, a monk at a monastery in Bologna. By the 1140s his text on canon law became a widely-accepted legal text in Europe. If natural law applies equally to all people, as Gratian thought it did, and if human law is founded on natural law, then all people should stand equally before the law of the land as well. The writers of the Magna Carta did not imagine all people as equal, for they accepted the basic hierarchical assumptions of feudal society. However, their Christian context did give theoretical support to reaffirming in the Magna Carta, with a new clarity and wider extension, traditional feudal notions that the law belongs to the folk or tribe.[10]

Through the practical support of churchmen, the example of St. Becket, and the influence of theology and canon law, the organizing principles of the Magna Carta connected that document firmly to the Christian culture of the day. Thus, the Magna Carta should be viewed in part as a major Christian contribution to the freedom of the individual and the limitation of the state.[11] When, centuries later, Rousseau famously attacked Christianity in his Social Contract (1762) for the way it distinguished religion from politics, in effect he sought to undo the legacy of the Magna Carta that had protected the interest of the Church from encroachment by the state in its first article. Rousseau wanted to return to the pagan worldview that united religion and the state in one, all-powerful unity. He called for an imminent religion, one of this world, which would pose no threat to the state. He sought to undo the transcendent orientation of Christianity and create a “political religion.”

The French Revolution, partly inspired by the ideas of Rousseau, then created a fertile ground for ideologies that would function as political religions, such as communism. These revolutionary forces sought to inspire ultimate faith in worldly objects, thereby eliminating any independent realm that could serve as a bedrock of principles from which to criticize and check political authority. A clash of two worldviews arises: one that limits power and creates space for true freedom, and one that — often in the name of “freedom” — worships power and tends to suffocate the human person in the prison of political conformity. The controversy over the Magna Cara in Beijing ultimately stands as a testimony not only against certain political and ideological forces in China but also in the West that seek to undermine the achievements of Christian culture.



[1] Lucy Hornby, “Magna Carta not Welcome at Beijing University,” Financial Times, October 14, 2015, (accessed 10-31-15); Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley, “China Sentences Xu Zhiyong, Legal Activist, to 4 Years in Prison,” New York Times, January 26, 2014, (accessed 10-31-15).

[2] Jiping Zuo, “Political Religion: The Case of the Cultural Revolution in China,” Sociological Analysis 52, no. 1 (1991): 101-104.

[3] Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (New York: Penguin, 2011), 287.

[4] Thomas Andrew, The Church and the Charter: Christianity and the Forgotten Roots of the Magna Carta (London: Theos, 2015), 31, (accessed Nov. 9, 2015).

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, “Address in Westminster Hall,” (accessed November 3, 2015).

[6] Andrew., 15.

[7] Ibid., 25-29.

[8] Ibid., 33-36.

[9] Ibid., 37-40.

[10] Ibid., 41-44.

[11] Ibid., 48.

Joseph T. Stuart

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Joseph Stuart is an Associate Professor of History and a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in North Dakota. His research is about Christopher Dawson and the relationship between religion and culture during World War I and the Enlightenment.