Most have heard of the Magna Carta and its dominant role in placing the English king under the law, but also outlining a number of fundamental rights and liberties that still resonate 800 years after is signing by King John on June 15, 1215 in a meadow at Runnymede. The Magna Carta was a crucial document for England’s history even though it was originally know only as the Charter of Runnymede. The Magna Carta is arguably the best known of all historical documents surviving from medieval England and remains a precedent-setting charter that would greatly influence not only England but many future nations, including the United States.
The context in which the Magna Carta was signed was not, as some would expect, of a progressive king demanding freedoms and liberty for his people. On the contrary, the document that was eventually drawn up was fueled by King John’s barons rebelling and forcing him to agree to limitations on his own power, as a result of heavy taxes imposed to fund King John’s unsuccessful wars in France. However, the fact that the Magna Carta was written in Latin – the language of scholarship, government and the church – emphasized its importance and recognition. Although signed in 1215, it was not until 1217 that John’s younger son, King Henry III, reissued the charter under the name Magna Carta. Of only four original manuscripts known to have survived, two are located at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral, and one at Salisbury Cathedral. Many around the world will have the honour to view some of the originals as they travel to exhibitions in 2015.
A number of the Magna Carta’s original clauses are still law in England, demonstrating its enduring liberties. One clause defends the freedom and rights of the English church; another the liberties and customs of the city of London and towns; while a third clause paved the way for habeas corpus – the right to not be unlawfully detained and a right to trial by jury. Similarly, another clause of the charter required the king to seek and obtain counsel in the assessment of aid. What this established was that those who have to pay taxes should have a voice in the use of those taxes. It was, ironically, England’s denial of these rights to the American colonies that resulted in the American War of Independence. The Magna Carta 2015 Committee notes that the “ideas of freedom and democracy, the rule of law to which all are subject and which are such a feature of Magna Carta, spread via France to the rebellious colonies of the New World. Thomas Jefferson not only paid tribute to the Levellers of the Putney Debates as an inspiration for the revolution, but used the breaches of the Magna Carta by yet another king, as retrospective justification for creating a brand new country in 1776.”
As we celebrate 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta we are reminded of its significant now more than ever. The call for liberty in the Middle East, Asia and around the world beg for the principles of liberty and freedom from despontism to be applied universally. It is hard to imagine that the signing of what would become the Magna Carta in a small meadow in England, would have such a lasting effect on the modern day – a potency that survived repeal, annulment, modification and suppression by monarch and governments alike. The greatest respect that we can afford the past 800 years, is to ensure that we uphold those same hard-fought liberties for the next 800 years and beyond.
For more information on the Magna Carta please feel free to consult the following sources:
The Magna Carta 800th Committee
British Library – Magna Carta
British Library – English Translation of the Magna Carta
Facebook – Magna Carta 800th Anniversary
BBC Radio 4 Programme on the Magna Carta
The Magna Carta Project