Magna Carta Celebrates 800 Years


Magna Carta

The Magna Carta is easily one of the most important legal documents in history. Also known as the Great Charter, this document espouses the idea of protecting an individuals rights, while also calling for governmental accountability. On June 15, 2015, the Magna Carta celebrates 800 years of significance and importance that spans the globe. This is a document that is referenced by everyone from Supreme Court Justices, Jay-Z and even human rights activists. In honor of this document’s signing anniversary, here are a number of interesting facts about one of the most important legal documents of the last 800 years.

As far as legal documents are concerned, the Great Charter has a very interesting history. Although it is considered to be a founding document for all other legal documentation, there were others that came before it. The historical roots of the Magna Carta can be found in assorted charters that had been granted by kings in England at the very start of their reigns. In fact, one of the charters that served as a basis for the Great Charter was signed by Henry I in 1100. At the time, the king issued a coronation charter with 20 clauses, all with a promise that he would be a just ruler. Some of the promises included reducing royal meddling when it came to not only marriages, but also in regards to familial inheritances for barons. He even offered the churches more financial freedoms.

As the Magna Carta celebrates 800 years since its signing, there is no actual information known as to who wrote the document. While historians know that the Great Charter was signed on June 15, 1215 at Runnymede, it is unclear who the actual writer of the charter was. The agreement itself was one between a number of English barons and King John. It was written in response to the king’s apparent years of excessive taxation, plus his misruling of the people.

Magna CartaSome historians in the 19th Century have suggested that the Magna Carta was actually written by one of the men who signed it. It is thought that the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, one of the document’s most influential signers may have been the writer. While he may have had input into the final product, it is more likely believed that the end result is a compilation of many months of negotiations, going back and forth between the noblemen and the king.

Although the Magna Carta is considered one of the greatest legal documents out of England, it was considered to be a failure when it was in its initial form. Originally written as a peace treaty, the first Great Charter never fully went into effect. It was unable to prevent a war between the noblemen and the king. In fact, King John was able to petition the Vatican successfully to have the Magna Carta annulled and have all of the rebel nobles excommunicated. It was not until 1225 that a new abridged version was reissued as the coronation charter of the new king, Henry III.

The original charter held 69 individual clauses. When it was reissued by King Henry III, it had been reduced to only 27 clauses. These clauses all remained as part of the law, with only minor tweaks and changes, until the 19th Century. When it finally was overhauled by parliamentary leaders, it was part of a process designed to eliminate a number of obsolete laws that were on the books.

The Great Charter laid a foundation for all legal documents to follow. There are three original clauses from the Magna Carta that are still part of the British laws. Of the clauses in the charter that can still be found as part of legal concepts, there is the ban on “cruel and unusual punishments,” a jury trial with one’s peers, as well as the concept that justice should never be unnecessarily delayed or even sold.

Another fascinating aspect of the Magna Carta stems from the fact that there is no one single, original copy. At the time of the Great Charter’s introduction, there were multiple copies that were all distributed to the many individual county courts. Now there are four surviving copies in existence. Two of the copies can be found in collections in the cathedrals at Lincoln and Salisbury, while the other two are held by the British Library. There are also a number of other versions of the Magna Carta. These versions were issued between 1225 and 1297. This final year is when the charter entered into the English statue books officially.

While the Magna Carta celebrates 800 years of use and existence, it is interesting to note that in England the word “the” is not used when referring to this charter. It is really only Americans that use “the” prior to Magna Carta when discussing this document, whether in newspapers, through political speeches or even in museum exhibits. No matter what it is called, whether the Great Charter or Magna Carta, this is a document that has not only stood the test of time, but has also acted as a foundation for legal precedent.

By Kimberley Spinney


History Channel – 6 Things You May Not Know About the Magna Carta
CNN – Magna Carta at 800: We are still enjoying the freedoms won

Photo Courtesy of Matt Brown’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Photo Courtesy of Charles D P Miller’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License