On June 215, 803 years ago, King John famously signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede, near Windsor. This document was to become one of the most important manuscripts in history. The King only agreed to sign this ‘Great Character’ after the barons who opposed his total rule of the country and England’s lands overseas, captured London in May 1215. This act of violence, with threats of more to come, left John with little choice but to agree to sign the charter, and thus create peace between the Crown and the rebel barons.
Speaking at the time of the Magna Carta’s 800th birthday, historian Justin Fisher said, “Magna Carta is a cornerstone of the individual liberties that we enjoy, and it presents an ongoing challenge to arbitrary rule. But over time, while not envisaged at the time of its drafting, Magna Carta has for many been seen not only as a foundation of liberty, but also one of democracy.”
At a basic level, the Magna Carta stated that everyone in the country was subject to the law, even the king (a clause that King John was particularly opposed to). In all, there were 63 clauses to the charter. Only three of those remain on the statute books today. The first of these concerns the defence of the liberties and rights of the English Church. The second agrees to the liberties and customs of London and other towns across England. The third (originally clause 39) is possibly the most important of all when thought of in context to all the periods of history between the thirteenth century and now. It gave all English subjects the right to justice and a fair trial. This clause says, “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.”
Despite these fine words, few men and women in England were actually free in the thirteenth century. The country was run under the feudal system, which gave everyone a strict class within which to live. However, the bill did establish a principle of fairness – that no one should be imprisoned or wronged outside of the legal system.
Although little of the original clauses in the Magna Carta remain as laws today, what has remained is what the document between the Crown and the State symbolise. As Justin Fisher explains, “From this principle of the rule of law and equality before the law comes the inspiration for declarations of human rights.” The Bill of Rights of 1689 in Britain, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 in France, and the Bill of Rights in the United States in 1791 all grew from this first principle established by the rebel barons who opposed King John. From those later laws the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948, and ultimately, so too was the British Human Rights Act of 1998 developed.
Back in the thirteenth century, King John hated the limits the document forced upon him. He was so determined to get revenge upon his barons that he wrote to the Pope, who agreed to destroy the charter. He annulled the document, calling it, “Illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people… null and void of all validity forever.”
Despite this, the Magna Carta has been reinterpreted by every generation since it was first signed, with a view to make a fairer legal system- and even develop a democratic country. Although the concept of democracy was but a dream in the thirteenth century, by the seventeenth it was beginning to be debated and linked to the idea of all men being equal in the eyes of the law- just as stated in the Magna Carta.
While the Magna Carta may not be obviously relevant to our own daily lives, 800 years since its conception it has come to stand for things we broadly take for granted: democracy, social equality and a fair legal system – as important today as they always have been, and perhaps even more so.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.