15 Jun 2015

Magna Carta at 800: what is the ‘great charter’?

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?

What is Magna Carta?

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nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within 10 years, and almost all the clauses have been repealed in modern times, the document remains a cornerstone of the British constitution.

Why was the charter created?

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.

Following further discussions with the barons and clerics, King John later signed the charter of liberties, subsequently known as the Magna Carta.

What does it contain?

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.

Is it still important today?

Although most of the clauses of Magna Carta have now been repealed, three clauses of the 1225 document remain remain part of English law.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.

      How influential was it?

      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).

      What about the future?

      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.

      Magna Carta by numbers

      • 4,478: the length in words of the British Library’s translation of Magna Carta, from the original medieval Latin. This is roughly three times as many words as the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and over five times the length of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which marked the start of the French Revolution in 1789.
      • 63: the number of clauses in Magna Carta. The numbering did not appear in the original document, but was added in subsequent translations by cartographers and historians.
      • Three: the number of clauses still contained within England and Welsh law, according to the British Library. These are clause one, stating the freedom of the Church of England; clause 13, stating the “liberties and customs” of the City of London; and clause 39 (sometimes included with clause 40), stating the right to due legal process and which includes the famous phrase: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
      • Four: copies of the original Magna Carta still in existence. Two are held by the British Library, one by Lincoln Cathedral and one by Salisbury Cathedral.
      • Seven: copies of a version dating from 1300 in existence. One was discovered as recently as February 2015, inside the pages of a Victorian scrapbook in Kent County Council archives. A total of 24 editions of various versions of Magna Carta are currently known to exist.
      • 25: number of barons charged with ensuring King John complied with Magna Carta. They could seize the king’s castles and land if he breached one of the document’s clauses and had not made amends after a 40-day cooling off period. Within months the barons had declared war on John over just such a breach.
      • 16: months after Magna Carta was signed that King John died. His son and successor, Henry III, oversaw a number of revisions of Magna Carta in response to the ongoing conflict with the barons. One of these documents was later reissued by Henry’s son Edward in 1297, and is the version of Magna Carta that became enshrined in law.
      • £10.6m: the amount paid at auction in 2007 for a copy of Magna Carta dating from 1297.