The symbolic law – visual references to Magna Carta in the 18th-century British Empire

The “concordia inter Regem Johannem et Barones pro concessione libertatum ecclesie et regni Anglie”, signed in June 1215, is generally considered to be the medieval foundation of the English parliamentary system. Even though so-called Magna Carta only indirectly referred to institutionalized opposition, this charter was frequently used to justify both irenic and violent resistance to kings and royal ministers.

By the 18th century, Magna Carta had become the archetype of liberties which unfolded a wide range of agitating and associational meanings whenever it was mentioned. As a consequence, Magna Carta also shaped the flourishing visual cultures of Britain and the colonies. When the personal union of Britain and Hanover was established in 1714, this imagery also spread to the continent and made Magna Carta a powerful symbol of a “mixed constitution”, whose blessings had to be advocated in the face of “republicans” and “radicals”. All throughout the century, graphical representations of Magna Carta were used as political arguments in educational publications, caricatures, elite profiling and oppositional propaganda.

The visual material referring to Magna Carta which has come down to us covers a wide spectrum of political thought and was published at several turning points of British constitutional history from the Glorious Revolution to the American independence and fears of Jacobin overthrow in the 1790s.

In an early anti-Jacobite engraving, entitled “The Invasion, or Perkins Triumph”, Magna Carta is presented as Britain’s secular analogue to the [Protestant] Bible.[1] But a pro-Jacobite print from Scotland also shows Bonnie Prince Charlie resting his arm on Magna Carta – a witty response to engravers who had depicted him with “Popish legends”. Adherents to the exiled Stuart family as well as supporters of the Hanoverian succession felt that Magna Carta was an important foundation of the British constitution and an important legitimation of their aims. And in later decades, both monarchists and republicans continued to appeal to this symbolic law with as much fervour. James Gillray’s “Death of the Great Wolf”, which criticized George III’s Treason and Sedition Bills, even used Magna Carta as a significant emblematic addition to the British-Hanoverian flag.

We have collected such images in our group’s research database, and you are welcome to contact us for further information.

[1] (George, 1959), p. 95: „A band of Scots follow the coach with the banner of Slavery and Wooden Shoes. The coach drives over Britannia, who drops her purse and other embems of Property, and also over personifications of Religion (with a Bible), and Law (with Magna Charta).”

Magna Carta (1297 version with seal, owned by David M. Rubenstein), (c) public domain, WIKIMEDIA

Magna Carta (1297 version with seal, owned by David M. Rubenstein), (c) public domain, WIKIMEDIA

Web resources:

American Bar Association: “Magna Carta. Icon of Liberty”, 2015:

“This site was created by the American Bar Association Division for Public Education through a grant from the Magna Carta Trust as a legacy project to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.”

Deutschlandfunk: “Magna Carta. Ein international gültiges Symbol für Freiheit”, 15.06.2015

MAGNA CARTA WORLD HERITAGE:“The story of Magna Carta”, 2014

Alexander Lock / The British Library: “Magna Carta in the 20th century”, 2015:

“Throughout the 20th century, Magna Carta inspired figures across the political spectrum, from suffragists and fascists to those drafting human rights legislation. Dr Alexander Lock explores the charter’s relationship to the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and modern America. – See more at: http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-in-the-20th-century#sthash.GHu0H7U7.dpuf


Monika Barget

Monika R. Barget, Universität Konstanz (Germany), vorname.nachname@uni-konstanz.de, Forschungsgebiete / research interests: Frühe Neuzeit / early modern history, Verfassungsgeschichte / constitutional history, Kirchengeschichte / church history, Medien / media, Kunst / art

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