Why It Came About
2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the creation of the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, a defining moment in English history. Back in 1215 King John ruled the land. He had been a spectacularly unsuccessful and unpopular King, losing vast swathes of land to opponents in modern day France.
To fund his military campaigns over in France, King John resorted to ever high taxation. This put a huge strain on his relationship with the landowners, the Barons. This relationship had already worsened since the Norman invasion of 1066 because crucially the Barons now only held their land by the King’s grant. The King theoretically had the right to demand payments from Barons at times of succession and even deprive a Baron’s son the right to succeed to his father’s lands.
By June 1215 the country was close to civil war with some Barons willing to side with the French Prince Louis, himself a distant relative of John’s father, King Henry II. John was backed into a corner and was forced to enter into negotiations at Runnymede, a site by the side of the river Thames halfway between the two rival camps.
John grudgingly put his seal to the Great Charter which was really a peace treaty between the King and the Barons. It promised protection of church rights, protection for the Barons from illegal imprisonment etc. It basically established the principle of due legal process.
Copies of Magna Carta were quickly distributed throughout the country. The stability it seemed to promise lasted less than three months. John reneged on his promises, the Pope annulled it and Prince Louis invaded. Even so, a powerful precedent had been set and following John’s death in 1216 successive Kings made further amendments to the Charter and re-issued it.
King John signs the Magna Carta. Photo: ©Doyle, James William Edmund (1864) “John” in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485.
Legacy Going Forward
The influence of Magna Carta has been profound and cited in many different situations all over the world.
- Sir Thomas More, executed by King Henry VIII in 1535 for refusing to swear the ‘Oath of Supremacy’, used Magna Carta’s freedom of the church provision at his trial.
- Sir Edward Coke drew on it when establishing the Petition of Right in 1628, to limit the authority of King Charles I. This disagreement eventually lead to the English Civil War.
- Nelson Mandela cited the Magna Carta, Petition of Right and Bill of Rights in an astonishing three hour speech at his ‘Rivonia’ trial which resulted in a sentence of life imprisonment.
Perhaps the most well known influence though was on the early colonies in North America.
- William Penn used Magna Carta when drawing up a law code for Pennsylvania. He is thought to be responsible for the first American printing of the Magna Carta.
- Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), was heavily influenced by Magna Carta. His profound phrase ‘All men are created equal’ can be seen to take it’s inspiration from Magna Carta.
- The US Bill of Rights (1789), the first ten amendments of the US Constitution, was similarly influenced by the ideas enshrined in Magna Carta.
John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence painting. Photo: ©United States Capitol.
Interestingly, the Magna Carta almost had a more recent impact on Anglo-US relations. The Lincoln Cathedral version of the 1215 Magna Carta had been exhibited at the British Pavilion of New York’s World Fair in 1939. With the outbreak of World War Two it got stranded in New York. The British Foreign Office considered gifting the copy to the US Government to reinforce their common cultural ties. It proved too difficult in the end and Magna Carta spent the rest of the war safely tucked away in Fort Knox !
Where Can I See The Magna Carta Today
There are quite a few copies of later versions of Magna Carta in existence. There are only four surviving copies though of the original 1215 version; one belongs to Lincoln Cathedral, one to Salisbury Cathedral and two are held at the British Library in London.
The Salisbury Cathedral version is by far the best preserved and provides a great reason to visit the beautiful 13th century Cathedral, the inspiration both for Ken Follett’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’ as well as Jay Z’s 2013 album ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’.
Until September 2015, there is a fascinating Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library.
At Runnymede itself there is a simple but elegant Magna Carta memorial that was erected in 1957. It was actually paid for by the American Bar Association, perhaps in recognition of the profound effect it had on democracy in the USA over the years.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Magna Carta. It is said that the most important export in British history was the English language. It seems entirely appropriate therefore that Magna Carta be considered the most important document in the English language.