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History Corner







G. M. Trevelyan On Magna Carta


George Macaulay Trevelyan, O.M., History of England (1929; Longmans, Green and Co., London), 171.


‘Several clauses in Magna Carta give expression to the spirit of individual liberty, as it has ever since been understood in England.

And the constant repetition of these brave words in centuries to come, by persons who were ignorant of the technical meaning they bore to the men who first wrote them down, helped powerfully to form the national character: –


‘No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor will we send upon him except by the lawful judgment of his peers or (and) the law of the land.


‘The Charter was regarded as important because it assigned definite and practical remedies to temporary evils.

There was very little that was abstract in its terms, less even than later generations supposed.
Yet it was the abstract and general character of the event at Runnymede that made it a great influence in history.

A King had been brought to order, not by a posse of reactionary feudalists, but by the community of the land under baronial leadership; a tyrant had been subjected to the laws which hitherto it had been his private privilege to administer and to modify at will. A process had begun which was to end in putting the power of the Crown into the hands of the community at large.


‘It is for this reason that a document so technical as the Charter, so deficient in the generalizations with which the Declaration of Independence abounds, so totally ignorant of the ‘rights of man,’ has had so profound and lasting an influence on the imagination in every sense of the word of succeeding ages.’