Commemorations are taking place to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta – but how much do we know about the first building block of the British constitution?
The Magna Carta is a charter agreed by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215 to resolve an uprising by nobles angered by the monarch’s despotic behaviour and extortionate taxes.
The charter was established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.
Although nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within 10 years, and almost all the clauses have been repealed in modern times, the document remains a cornerstone of the British constitution.
England – at the time – was ruled by King John, the third of the Angevin kings. John and his predecessors had ruled using the principle of vis et voluntas, or “force and will”, taking executive and sometimes arbitrary decisions, often justified on the basis that a king was above the law.
King John in June 1215 was forced to put his seal to the articles of the barons by a group of powerful nobles who could no longer stand his failed leadership and despotic rule.
Most of the 63 clauses granted by King John dealt with specific grievances relating to his rule. However, buried within them were a number of fundamental values that both challenged the autocracy of the king and proved highly adaptable in future centuries.
Most famously, the 39th clause gave all “free men” the right to justice and a fair trial.
Although most of the clauses of Magna Carta have now been repealed, three clauses of the 1225 document remain remain part of English law. One defends the liberties and rights of the English church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous:
“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 clause gave all free men the right to justice and a fair trial. However, “free men” comprised only a small proportion of the population in medieval England. The majority of the people were unfree peasants known as “villeins”, who could seek justice only through the courts of their own lords.
Magna Carta is sometimes regarded as the foundation of democracy in England. In fact, most of its terms applied only to a small proportion of the population in 1215, and the implementation of the charter in subsequent centuries remained open to the interpretation of the courts.
Some of Magna Carta’s core principles are also echoed in the United States Bill of Rights (1791) and in many other constitutional documents around the world, as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).
The Conservative government has controversial plans to scrap the human rights act and assert the supremacy of the UK’s supreme court over the European court of justice in Strasbourg – leaving open the option of withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights if reforms are blocked.
Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday declared that fundamental reforms to UK human rights laws were required to “safeguard the legacy” of Magna Carta.