The Magna Carta was described by many as history’s most important document and today, we celebrate its 800th anniversary.
The Magna Carta – meaning ‘The Great Charter’ also known as ‘Magna Carta Libertatum’ or ‘The Great Charter of the Liberties’ – was originally issued by King John of England, who reigned between 1199 and 1216. He called for the charter to be drawn up as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215. The document established for the very first time in English history the principle that every single soul under the King’s reign – and even including the King himself – was subject to the law.
While it’s true that over the following decade the Magna Carta was rewritten quite significantly and large parts of it were deleted, and that in modern times nearly all of the clauses have been repealed, the Magna Carta still nonetheless survives as being the cornerstone of the British constitution.
History of the Magna Carta
The original document contained 63 clauses when it was first granted. Of those, only 3 still remain part of English law. The first defends the rights and liberties of the English Church. The second confirms the customs and liberties of London (and other cities and towns). And then there’s the most famous third and final one:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
This is the clause that’s just as important today as it has ever been. It gives all ‘free men’ the right to a fair trial and therefore to justice. (However, not all men (or women) were considered ‘free’ in medieval England. If you were a peasant – known as a ‘villein’ – you were considered unfree, and could only seek justice through courts of your own lord.)
In 1215, this clause enjoyed no particular prominence – the sense that we should all have freedom, justice and liberty, which we all take for granted today, was simply not part of the collective consciousness of ‘villeins’ at the time the document was granted.
However, the adaptability of the clause has allowed for succeeding generations to reinterpret the words in the pursuit of their own purposes.
“In the 14th century Parliament saw it as guaranteeing trial by jury; in the 17th century Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) interpreted it as a declaration of individual liberty in his conflict with the early Stuart kings; and it has echoes in the American Bill of Rights (1791) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).” (The British Library bl.uk)
The Document of Peace
The primary purpose of the Magna Carta first being written was to form a peace treaty between King John and the rebel barons. When viewed from this perspective, it is not an unfair conclusion to draw that the Magna Carta was a failure. But of course, although the document made little difference to the relationship between the King and his barons (for the King actually made little attempt to abide by the terms of the Magna Carta), what it did succeed in doing was creating a new framework for the relationship between the head of state and his/her subjects.
Indeed, since the many divergent uses that have been made of the document since medieval England, in the modern world the Magna Carta has become a symbolic and potent international rallying cry against the arbitrary use of power.
The Writ Read Round the World
Throughout the centuries, the Magna Carta has made a significant impression upon politics and issues of liberty around the globe – not least in the United States.
The Magna Carta exercised a strong influence in the New World of America, both on the United States Constitution and on the constitutions of the various individual states. However, this influence was very much shaped by what 18th Century Americans believed the Magna Carta to signify.
“Magna Carta was widely held to be the people’s reassertion of rights against an oppressive ruler, a legacy that captured American distrust of concentrated political power. In part because of this tradition, most of the state constitutions included declarations of rights intended to guarantee individual citizens a list of protections and immunities from the state government. The United States also adopted the Bill of Rights, in part, due to this political conviction.” (Liberty of Congress loc.gov)
The history of the Magna Carta itself is actually quite troubled. Indeed, only 10 weeks after it was written it was annulled by the Pope. But, undoubtedly what has endured beyond all else is the spirit of the document.
Today, 800 years on from the original penning, the animating principle of those immortal words still lives on in the lives and voices of all of us, and it has been used for the promotion of all manner of causes throughout the years.
And this is something that is being celebrated in an exhibition that has been in the British Library since March this year.
“This exhibition showcases the persistent power of Magna Carta as both a myth and a manifesto, showing how, for 800 years, it has been used as a tool and symbol for all kinds of movements and causes: by the suffragettes, as a building block of the American Constitution and in defence of Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia trial of 1963-4.” (historytoday.com)
Celebrating 800 Years of the Magna Carta
Today marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. To commemorate both its British and international significance, there are many events being held up and down the nation.
HRH the Princess Royal opens today Lincoln Castle’s Magna Carta Vault.
Derek Taylor, author of Magna Carta in 20 Places, will be giving a talk in London explaining why Magna Carta went global, and The Access to Justice Foundation will be conducting a ‘Legal Walk’ through York.
For further event dates that are taking place throughout the rest of this historic year visit magnacarta800th.com for a full list of links and details.