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‘Britishness’ debate: can you do Magna Carta without also doing God?

17 June 2014

Was anyone terribly surprised by the Social Attitudes Survey published today suggesting that most people thought that, in order to be British, you should be able to speak English? Some 95 per cent thought so; the only curiosity being that in 2006 the figure was as low as 86 per cent. Nor indeed is it terribly odd that, as the authors point out, the threshold for Britishness is getting higher. As the survey from January points out, three in four people think immigration numbers should be reduced; the question of identity has to be seen in that context.

One interesting aspect of the survey is the decrease in the numbers of people who think Christianity is an important component of Britishness – fewer than a quarter do so, down from 32 per cent in 1995 – or nearly a third. Now obviously, Christianity can’t be a pre-requisite for Britishness but the larger question is whether it’s an important component of the culture. I think it’s self-evident that it is: prior to the Reformation, as a Catholic culture, after it, as a generally Protestant one. And, since the PM was obliging enough to pin British values to Magna Carta last week, it’s worth taking a look at the very first bit of the text, the preamble, which is stuffed with references to God and his church, and the first article, which is to do with the freedom of the church – with which, unfortunately, Henry VIII played fast and loose.

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Here’s a translation of the first bit:

‘Preamble: John, by the grace of God, king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to the archbishop, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciaries, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his bailiffs and liege subjects, greetings. Know that, having regard to God and for the salvation of our soul, and those of all our ancestors and heirs, and unto the honor of God and the advancement of his holy Church and for the rectifying of our realm, we have granted as underwritten by advice of our venerable fathers, Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England and cardinal of the holy Roman Church, Henry, archbishop of Dublin, William of London, Peter of Winchester, Jocelyn of Bath and Glastonbury, Hugh of Lincoln, Walter of Worcester, William of Coventry, Benedict of Rochester, bishops; of Master Pandulf, subdeacon and member of the household of our lord the Pope, of brother Aymeric (master of the Knights of the Temple in England), and of the illustrious men William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, William, earl of Salisbury, William, earl of Warenne, William, earl of Arundel, Alan of Galloway (constable of Scotland), Waren Fitz Gerold, Peter Fitz Herbert, Hubert De Burgh (seneschal of Poitou), Hugh de Neville, Matthew Fitz Herbert, Thomas Basset, Alan Basset, Philip d’Aubigny, Robert of Roppesley, John Marshal, John Fitz Hugh, and others, our liegemen.

‘1. In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English Church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs forever. We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs forever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs forever.’

The references to “our lord the Pope” are interesting, no? Anyway, as regards England (at least) and Christianity, I think it’s pretty apparent how things stand.

PS: The late SDLP leader, Gerry Fitt, recalled one grand lady telling him how she remembered the date of Magna Carta. ‘Like an early lunch…12.15.’

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  • edithgrove

    And what should they know of England who only England know?— Spend six months in Saudi if you think British values have something to do with fish and chips and warm beer.

  • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

    It’s more than pretty apparent. It’s blindingly obvious really. The truth makes us free. What one truly believes will always be in the first place..wherever it is..or whenever. The first place is a position. Freedom is everyone’s true position, in the first place..that’s what I get from this bit of the magna carta.

    Plus God’s name is Jehova which means something akin to ” I am that I am” ( can’t get tighter than that )..But later, Jesus kindly threw some light in and gave us the best way to give/take the truth.

  • Delta Singh


    We were brought up as schoolboys to believe that the Barons brought the wicked King John to heel.

    Now I am not so sure.
    Why does the Great Charter put God and Christianity first? It obviously does – but why? What were they thinking?

    If there are ‘human rights’ then where did they come from? If they were invented by men – then men can be robbed of rights. For example by the wicked King John; King Charles I; King George III; Stalin; Hitler; Pol Pot (the list grows in every generation).

    Why did the Great Charter begin with God and Christianity? Could it be that Christians believe that all men are made in the image of God?

    If God was their Great Foundational Premise (the perfect personality (uncreated) external to each individual and class of men) then the ‘rule of law’ makes logical sense: each king, each man, each dictator under the Christian system must produce a system of law which is subordinate to ‘God’s revealed principles’. In such a system the lord and butler must be equal before the law.

    Therefore, it seems to me, the West won because it bowed down to the Creator and the East lost because it rejected the Creator.

    Still, for the East all is not lost. For example, the West is killing itself through abortion: seven million lives terminated in Britain since 1967. We see what the British are doing: rejecting life accepting death.

  • pearlsandoysters

    That’s quite a strange question to ask, once it caters for semi-literate audiences, who self-complacently impose contemporary dogmas on things of the past. The past is a foreign country, no ruler of the period in their right minds would skip to mention God’s grace. Historically, all the princes inherited the duty to protect Christian faith. However, the current modes of thinking tend to distort the realities on the medieval ground, create a seriously truncated versions to suit the sensibilities.

    • Delta Singh

      You’re missing the deeper point of what McDonagh is indicating: unnatural law and unspeakable ethics – for the shallow 21st century mind:

      The paper is written by a non-Christian with remarkable intellectual honesty – which surprised me.

      • pearlsandoysters

        Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Arthur Leff’s papers. In the Middle Ages the law was either “found” or “restored”, namely “good old law” was rescued from the oblivion. On the other hand the law was “whatever pleased the prince”. Alasdair MacIntyre argued for tradition constituted conceptions of justice against John Rawls’s universal justice. Anyway, thanks for comment.

  • global city

    What a stupid question in the headline?

    No. Western culture is rooted in Christian teaching, just as 20th C notions of British liberty are rooted in Magna Carta, but both are foundations. To reinvigorate modern democracy and law in the UK does not mean adherence to two old fashioned works, just inspiration.

  • andagain

    The references to “our lord the Pope” are interesting, no?

    Not really. King John found it advisable to swear fealty to the Pope earlier in his reign. His successors did not. Later kings issued similar charters at their accession. King John’s is no longer important. After all, he is no longer the reigning king.

    • Delta Singh

      You’re missing the deeper point of what McDonagh is indicating:
      unnatural law and unspeakable ethics – for the shallow 21st century

      The paper is written by a non-Christian with remarkable intellectual honesty – which surprised me.

      • andagain

        Would you care to tell me what that deeper point is? That people were very religious in the thirteenth century? That the Papacy had too much secular power? That King John had signed over authority to a pan-european supernational institution?

        • Samuel Johnson

          That Magna Carta was not “playing God” in the sense of the US constitution but saw itself as following an ethical framework that still exists in much the same form today.

          • andagain

            The US Constitution is still in force two hundred years later. The Magna Carta wasn’t. King John and the rebels were at war again in less than one percent of that time.

            • Samuel Johnson

              Yes. But Magna Carta’s modesty paradoxically points towards the greater Christian ethics it’s based upon, and which survive to this day, primarily in the office of the Papacy and the Catholic Church. If the US constitution is still around in 800 years, feel free to let me know.

              • andagain

                Are you trying to tell me that the Magna Carta was a success because the Papacy still exists?

                • Samuel Johnson

                  Your picture of Magna Carta being a “failure” because not all of it was in force 200 years later is misleading and partial. The concepts of jury trial, habeas corpus etc. survived and became a touchstone for generations of Englishmen and Britons. This “success” I and evidently others feel is due to its grounding in natural law and Christian ethics.

                • andagain

                  It wasn’t in force two years later.

                  The tradition of later English Kings issuing charters about jury trial, liberty and so on, was important, but I don’t see any reason to think that had anything to do with Christianity. Russians, for example, were just as Christian as Englishmen, but their rulers had no such tradition. Which may explain a lot of Russian history, but suggests that Christianity was not the decisive factor.

                  Likewise Constantine the Greats successors as Roman Emperor were all Christians, but it is not obvious that they cared more about individual or political liberty than the pagan Roman Republic, with its balanced Constitution and checks and balances. Again, Christianity did not seem to make such a big improvement.

                • Samuel Johnson

                  Russia not a good example for what I am talking about as it is/was Orthodox and so not a part of western Christianity with Rome as its centre. I would still have preferred to live in Russia in the time of Catherine the Great etc. than before Christianity or under the Soviet Union.
                  Not all Roman emperors after Constantine were Christian, especially not Justinian who returned Rome to paganism. Even Constantine was only baptised at the very end of his life. It was a time of flux. I think you idealise the Roman republic, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that Christian ethics translate best into a system of political and social liberty under the law, and are indeed its foundation (see Siedentop’s ‘Inventing the Individual’). A better comparison for this purpose would be with non-Christian civilisations such as the Ottoman empire or Islamic states, or Communist systems. But you obviously don’t want to make that point.

                • andagain

                  The point is that Christian ethics translate best into a system of political and social liberty under the law

                  So why were the Russian and Byzantine Empires such bad examples? They were as Christian is England,at any given time. And if the thing is being Catholic, rather than being Christian, England, Wales, Scotland , Scandanavia and North America have for centuries been Protestant, yet they never seem to have been less free than Catholic countries in consequence.

                • Samuel Johnson

                  Because they were not as Christian as any other nation at any time. Christianity, as I have repeatedly suggested, is not a set of fixed principles that are implemented by any society that calls itself Christian. Like Sharia law. No, it evolves and develops over time. It is or should be a prevailing spirit that guides society and creates norms. You cannot seriously claim that the Byzantine empire was a Christian society comparable to medieval European societies steeped in centuries of Catholicism. Read Evelyn Waugh’s Helena if you want a good picture of what Christianity was really like in the time of Constantine. Or St Augustine. Or St Irenaeus. There is no, or very little, comparison. And while I don’t want to write off Russia or Orthodox Christianity, they are two very different religions. The countries you mention, including the USA, which grew out of liberal northern European societies, were shaped by centuries of Catholicism before they apostatised, a much more liberal (in the best sense), open worldview than desiccated eastern Orthodoxy at its worst. And it’s no accident that the Tudors brought with them a massive reduction in civil liberties, openly political executions and show trials when they came to power.

        • Delta Singh

          Becuase you refuse to work hard, study and reflect – you shall not be spoon-fed. Instead your eyes shall remain but not see; your ears shall hear but not hear.

          For it is written:

          And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.…

          • andagain

            I see. You refuse to explain your point, on the grounds that I asked you to.

            • Delta Singh

              I refer you to my previous explanation.

              It is not about ‘religion’; the Papacy, or a supra-national power or the dictator King John.

              It is about jurisprudence, epistemology and the subjectivity/objectivity; individual/society; mind/brain: problem.

              Clue: that ‘back slash’ in each of those formulations is 1 million feet of concrete thick and long; impregnated with land mines; nuclear tipped misslies each one protected by barbed wire.

              In the 13th century – they began Magna Carta by penetrating that problem – and that problem 21st century man has been unable to resolve (despite it being resolved).

              So what weapon did 13th century man deploy to penetrate and unlock the problem?

              Now do you get it?

              • Delta Singh

                Further, if you can’t resolve the Problem – you will never be in a position to condemn the Holocaust.

                Now do you get it?

                Okay, kid. The English Civil War: Lex Rex or Rex lex?

                What did law mean to 13th century man and 17th century man?

                So who is first? Lex or Rex?

                The easy-peasy answer is Lex.

                Ok! Well done.

                So where does Lex come from?

                Your answer at the moment is ‘me’ or ‘the Party’ or ‘Society’ or ‘the Philosophy’.

                If that is so – you cannot condemn the Holocaust.

                Now do you get it?

                So what was 13th and 17th centuries’ answer to that problem?

                What did the lawyer Bracton admit?

                What did the lawyer Sir Chief Justice Edward Coke advise King Charles I?

                What does the American Declaration of Independence affirm?

                Have you not read President Lincoln, the American Constitution and its comfort only for a moral (Christian) people?

                Now do you get it?

                • Delta Singh


                  When an ‘atheist’ says: ‘I can be moral’ he is choosing by accident.

                  He may condemn, for example, the killing of 8 million babies by abortion; but, he cannot say why because we all die anyway.

                  In other words, the ‘atheist’ has no ‘unnatural law and unspeakable ethics’ on which to condemn. All he has is ‘cos I say so’.

                  Now do you get it?

                • andagain

                  And the believer who reads the story of Noahs Ark must cheer the massacre of millions, right down to the babes in their cradles, because God did it, so it must be right.

      • Samuel Johnson

        Thank you very much for passing on this interesting article.

        • Delta Singh

          Mr Johnson – you’re welcome.

          Now I truly understand the answer to Solzhenitsyn’s question, when he asked the old Russian men:


          They replied: ‘We have forgotten God.’

          I am amazed that the English intellect of the 13th century is superior to the English intellect of the 21st century.

          It’s as if Englishmen have said to God, their Creator: ‘Our will be done.’

          God has replied: ‘Thy will be done.’

  • dado_trunking

    In the meantime the Roman Catholics are christening and confirming youth as if there was no tomorrow.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …sorta like you do with all your sockpuppets, eh laddie?

      • dado_trunking

        eh laddie, most are Irish like you n’all.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …your army of sockpuppets has a nationality?

          • dado_trunking

            … very good laddie, stop limiting yourself. Free the mind.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              …did your army of nationalist sockpuppets qualify for the World Cup, lad?

  • Samuel Johnson

    Melanie spot on as always. Daniel Hannan threw a paddy on The Big Questions when Peter Hitchens suggested that Magna Carta (which Hannan fetishises) was rooted in Christianity. Having leaders obey the law isn’t much good if that law is no good in the first place, and the source of good law is not the landscape or ‘British values’ (whatever they are) but Christianity.

    • Kaine

      Which Christianity would this be? The one that was ok with slavery, or the one that was against it? The one that executed people for ‘sorcery’, or the one that views this as a travesty? The one that decries homosexuals as abominations, or the one that says that love is the greatest thing wherever it can be found?

      • Samuel Johnson

        Popes actually have quite a long record of decrying slavery. No I would suggest the Christianity rooted in the Gospels and the teachings of the Church.

        • Kaine

          Who gets to decide which one that is? Is there some sort of Test we can do?

          • Samuel Johnson

            If you are a Catholic then the authority of the Church with the Pope as the ultimate guarantor. That was obviously the case for the framers of Magna Carta. The Anglican Church started as quite Lutheran but over time followed Catholicism more, but that is really a question for the other churches to answer.

            • Kaine

              The Catholic Church’s dominion in England was a usurpation. Caesaropapalism. The temporal deference of lords to the Bishop of Rome based upon the material power of the Church in no way implies an ideological fealty.

          • global city

            you really are going further up a blind alley with that angle of argument… it’s a stupid one

            • Kaine

              It’s the argument upon which the Anglican Church was founded.

              • global city


          • Delta Singh
    • dado_trunking

      indeed, and the evil Code Napoleon is of course written by the devil.

      • Conway

        Might as well be.

    • Delta Singh


      For the concept of the ‘rule of law’ to be operational – man-made (natural) law must point to a supervisory super-natural law.

      When it does, the king and the peasant have equal staus under the law – and tyranny is suppressed (the King is under no man save God and the law – so wrote Bracton).

      The laws of ancient Rome and Greece gave rights to institutions (for example the family) but had no conception of individual human rights.

      It took Christianity to point out that all men were created in the image of God – and the consequences flowed.

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