Magna Carta doesn’t mean you can ‘legally overthrow’ a ‘tyrannical’ government

6 June 2023
What was claimed

Article 61 of Magna Carta gives people the power to legally overthrow a tyrannical government.

Our verdict

This part of Magna Carta has no legal standing today. It only appeared in the first version of the document, drawn up in 1215, and was never placed on the statute book.

A post on Facebook suggests that “Article 61” of Magna Carta means the government can be overthrown “legally” if it is believed to be “tyrannical”. 

The post includes a picture with text which says: “The constitution actually says you can legally overthrow your government if they are tyrannical”. This is alongside the caption “Article 61 of the Magna Carta”. 

This is not true. The UK does not have a singular constitution like other countries such as the US and, as we have written before, Magna Carta does not give UK citizens in the present day the legal right to overthrow the government. 

Magna Carta, which means “great charter” in Latin, is the name given to a series of royal charters issued in the 13th century. The original version of Magna Carta, drawn up in 1215 following disputes between the King and a group of rebel barons, was designed to limit the power of the monarch and enshrine certain rights. 

This original version had 63 clauses—only four of which are still relevant today. 

Clause 61, which appears to be what the Facebook post refers to when it says “Article 61”, is not one of the clauses remaining in effect today. 

Whatever the original text of Magna Carta said, it was quickly declared null and void by the Pope and reissued in various forms over the following years. Clause 61 does not appear in the 1225 version of the document, which forms the basis of our common law today. 

 It also does not appear in the version of Magna Carta placed on the statute book in 1297, much of which has since been repealed. 

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What did Clause 61 say?

It originally said: “The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter.

“If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.” 

This clearly states that these rights only apply to a group of 25 barons, not the population in general. 

Clause 61 then continues: “Any man who so desires may take an oath to obey the commands of the twenty-five barons for the achievement of these ends, and to join with them in assailing us to the utmost of his power.”

Again, this is very different from the Facebook post’s claim that “you can legally overthrow your government”. Instead, “any man” is granted the right to obey the commands of the barons. 

Magna Carta is a popular subject of misinformation regarding laws in the UK. We have fact checked false claims about its supposed powers a number of times before—including claims it could be used to “seize” Edinburgh Castle and that it exempts you from paying council tax

The UK doesn’t have a codified constitution 

A “constitution” is a system of principles, rules and laws that underpin a political system, which creates and defines what powers different political institutions have and how they relate to each other. It also puts limits on these powers, and regulates the relationship between the state and its citizens. 

It is sometimes said that the UK has an “unwritten” constitution, but this isn’t strictly true. It is largely written, but has never been codified—meaning it has never been brought together in a single document. 

Instead, the constitution is found in a number of different statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties. 

Magna Carta isn’t “the constitution”, but it was a significant turning point in recognising the rule of law in the UK and inspired future legal concepts such as “habeas corpus” which means a person may not be detained without legal reason.

Image courtesy of maveric2003

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