David Starkey's Magna Carta, BBC2 - TV review: In our illiberal age an 800-year-old text matters more than ever

This documentary took in 800 years at such a trot, it was hard to sift the salient points from the deluge of dates and detail

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The Independent Culture

Does Magna Carta really matter today? That’s my question, not one posed by the historian-host of David Starkey’s Magna Carta, an hour-long documentary to mark the 800th anniversary of "the great charter". Starkey himself seemed to take the charter’s significance as read: "It matters as much now as it did then; more, in fact, because we’ve forgotten so many of its lessons."

What are its lessons? This documentary took in 800 years at such a trot, it was hard to sift the salient points from the deluge of dates and detail, but certainly Magna Carta’s status has changed over the years. When it was first agreed in 1215, the most important clause was the one that protected the property of a few powerful barons from seizure by the king. Since then it has been trumpeted as the very foundation of all our cherished democratic freedoms.

Read between the lines of Starkey’s rather muted presentation and it seems the history of Magna Carta is less the history of a glorious struggle against tyranny and more that of various powerful parties successfully weaselling out of their commitments.  King John had it annulled by the Pope, James I and Charles I both tried to  suppress it, Oliver Cromwell dismissed  it as "Magna Farta" and to this day,  post-9/11 governments in Britain  and the US routinely opt to prioritise security over liberty.

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