Adam Bennett explores Magna Carta’s legacy and discovers what plans are in store for its 800th anniversary.
The Magna Carta story begins with 13th century tyrant King John, best known as the infamous villain in the tales of Robin Hood. A wicked and selfish monarch, John had started and lost wars in France, imposed punitive taxes and denied basic rights to all; from common peasants to the privileged Barons. He pillaged his own people whilst lavishly indulging foreign rulers.
By 1204 John had lost most of the land accumulated in Normandy by his father and his incessant tax increases were bankrupting the Barons. For 5 years they had tolerated their troublesome monarch, but it was John’s promise to place England under Papal authority, pay 1000 Marks to the Papacy and embark on a crusade to the Holy Land that prompted them into action.
Renouncing their fealty to the King, 25 Barons and Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, began to organise and draft a Charter to protect themselves from the omnipotent monarch.
“Magna Carta is the foundation of social justice, rule of law and due process of law but it was not about the many, it was about the few. It was negotiated to protect the interests of the Barons from the King, but filtered down to impact upon the many in the best possible of ways through its principles and access to justice.” Robert Key, Magna Carta expert
Within its 63 clauses Magna Carta protected the freedom of the Church and entitled all free men protection from illegal imprisonment and seizure of property whilst also demanding access to fair justice and limitations on taxation.
[box type=”info”]Above all, Magna Carta was the first document to declare that no-one, not even the monarch, is above the rule of law.[/box]
On 19 June 1215, Magna Carta was sealed, not signed, by King John at Runnymede on the banks of the River Thames. Multiple copies were drawn up by royal scribes and were entrusted to Sheriffs and the 13 cathedrals in the land. To this day, 4 copies of the 1215 Magna Carta remain. They are now sealed under glass at The British Library, Lincoln Castle and Salisbury Cathedral.
Claire Breay, Head of Medieval manuscripts at the British Library says “Magna Carta is the most popular item in the library’s Treasures Gallery. It is venerated around the world as marking the starting point for government under the law.”[portfolio_slideshow id=224300]
[clear]To celebrate the 800th anniversary, all four copies will be brought together for the first time in 800 years at a British Library exhibition hosted by TV historian Dan Snow. For their own celebrations, lottery funding has also been granted to both Lincoln and Salisbury cathedral to open new exhibits.
Salisbury Cathedral’s Magna Carta Programme Manager Seif El Rashidi explains,
“There will be a selection of musical and theatrical performances at the Cathedral in June and July. Magna Cantata is a new piece of music composed for a chorus of 200 people and we are inviting local Wiltshire and Dorset school children to sing the Cantata. We’re also working with the Youth Theatre Group at Salisbury Playhouse who are devising a Magna Carta performance which will be very exciting.”
Rashidi goes onto say,
“There’s a very strong link between Magna Carta and Salisbury Cathedral. The man in charge of distributing it after it was agreed in 1215 was a priest called Elias De Dereham who later came and built our Cathedral. We’re creating a new exhibition which will include film and other media demonstrating the history behind Magna Carta and why it is here. As with most one page documents, Magna Carta can be quite dry and so we’re hoping to make it a fun experience, explaining the history of Magna Carta and why it is still important today.”
Despite the Barons’ efforts, the Magna Carta of 1215 was a failure and John soon renounced the Charter and appealed for the Pope to condemn it. England was plunged into a bloody Civil War, which finally saw John die of dysentery at Newark Castle. Yet over time the principles of Magna Carta slowly gathered momentum.
Upheld and reissued by 6 Kings through the ages, Britain slowly developed its constitution. In 1689 the Charter provided the founding principles for the first English Bill of Rights and a century later crossed the Atlantic heavily influencing the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Both documents developed Magna Carta’s formula and gave all men, not just those in positions of power, freedom of speech and the right to elect members of government.
— MAGNA CARTA CANADA (@MagnaCartaCAN) January 24, 2015
Lincoln’s 800th anniversary celebrations are unique as their copy of the Charter is the only one to be exhibited around the world, in particular North America. Whilst Lincoln’s document will be taking part in the British Library celebrations, it has also been the star artefact in many American exhibitions including those at the Library of Congress and the Reagan Library in California. Dean of Lincoln Cathedral, Philip Buckler travels with the Charter and regularly gives lectures, explaining the importance of Magna Carta today. He says that more plans are in the works to tour the 800 year old document in the future.
[clear]Whilst Magna Carta’s roots are buried deep beneath English soil, its branches have spanned the globe influencing political development and arming individuals with their own rights. A practical solution to a political problem for the Barons, only 3 of the original clauses in Magna Carta are still law. One deals with the rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns.
The third paved the way for trial by jury by stating that no man could be arrested, imprisoned or have their possessions taken way except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. It also placed limits on royal authority and made it clear that the monarch was not above the rule of law. Whilst the Magna Carta of 1215 was only valid for 10 weeks it was one of the most significant events in world history. Limiting the power of authoritarian rule it set in motion wider liberties and freedoms enjoyed by millions.
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