You’ve heard of the Magna Carta, right? You know – the obscure, 63-clause document written 800 years ago and probably the most enduring legislation in history? But have you any idea what it says or why it still matters? The Magna Carta (“great charter” in Latin) has been held up throughout the centuries as a beacon of liberty and freedom, for the first time giving the common man (and a few women) access to legal rights.
However, the document was drawn up by the aristocracy in order to protect their own wealth. King John’s knights and barons were alarmed by the significant taxes he was raising to fund wars in France and the 13th century cost of living crisis (yes, really).
The rebels got together in June 1215 and put into writing for the first time the principle that the king and his government were not above the law. It sought to prevent the king from exploiting his power, and placed limits on royal authority.
This was so radical an idea that the charter led – indirectly and gradually – to the 1689 Bill of Rights, the United States Bill of Rights in 1790, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in France in 1789, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948.
Magna Carta and Today
Most of the clauses would be unfathomable to us today. You’ll never be required by law to pay a knight’s fee, seize corn or return Welsh hostages. In fact, of the 63 clauses, only clauses 39 and 40 still apply. These are: “that no free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor in any way proceeded against, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land”. And “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.” These clauses establish the rule of law, due process, and the principle of trial by jury.
Of course, King John resisted the legislation (which was not one document, but several, tweaked and amended over time). However, it prevailed. It became the cornerstone of the English legal system before its principles were adopted by societies across the globe. Recently Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet, has called for a “Magna Carta for the web” to protect rights and privacy of users worldwide.
You can still see original copies of the Magna Carta in Lincoln Cathedral, the Cathedral of St Mary in Salisbury and the British Library. In addition, you can find editions from 1216, 1225 and 1300 in Durham Cathedral; a 3rd edition (1217) in Hereford Cathedral and 3 copies of the surviving 1217 editions in Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
Want to read more about historical documents, read about the Edward Clark Collection