Magna Carta Revisited

A packed and attentive audience enjoyed the third History of Tax Group lecture presented by Professor Jane Frecknall Hughes at the Information Technologists' Hall on 2nd February 2010. She is a Professor of Accounting at the Open University and her research focuses on taxation from an interdisciplinary perspective, a field in which she has published extensively.

Her topic for the WCTA History of Tax Group was " Tax and the Magna Carta", and her aim was to demonstrate that Magna Carta was evidence of a tax revolt. Her approach was to link the issues raised in the document’s individual clauses to taxes levied in King John’s reign (1199-1216), and to look at the effect on those paying (the barons). Professor Frecknall Hughes was unable to bring the original Magna Carta document to the event, but came along with the next best thing, a tea towel representation (pictured), which was passed round the audience and allowed us to see how short the document was with the clauses running together as if a stream of consciousness.

She talked us through the myriad of taxes and exactions prevalent in the period, such as carucage, scutage and tallage, and explained how King John attempted to extract more money from these than his predecessors had done. Access to justice, the ability to marry or to succeed to an estate were also used as excessive revenue raising opportunities. A comparison with the reigns of Henry II and Richard I showed that John increased both the frequency and the amounts claimed in his levies until the barons whom he was impoverishing united to put a brake on his activities. Some taxes were national levies for the first time, and John's reign marked the beginning of a move from a feudal system to a national tax system. The presentation also brought to life the barons, especially the 25 named suretors who witnessed the Magna Carta, by illustrating their family connections, their lands and their increasing tax burden.

John Whiting, who chaired the event, advised attendees that he had recently quoted Magna Carta in correspondence with HMRC, which he considered was relevant to his argument even today. The enthusiastic audience raised many questions afterwards, and discussions continued at the Hall over a glass of wine and at nearby Betjeman's over supper. I am sure that everyone who attended the event would like to thank Professor Frecknall Hughes for a most illuminating and entertaining evening.

Morag Loader

February 2010