February 2, 2015
The Magna Carta Explained
The Telegraph, 2nd February 2015
‘As the four original surviving copies of the Magna Carta are brought together under the same roof for the first time, here is a Q&A about the document
The Magna Carta was granted 800 years ago. So what is it, how did it come about, and what does it do today?
What is Magna Carta?
Magna Carta is an 800-year-old document containing the idea that no-one is above the law, and it still forms the foundation of many modern ideas and documents today.
What does Magna Carta mean?
It means “Great Charter” in Latin. In fact the whole document is in Latin.
When and where was Magna Carta granted?
Magna Carta was first drawn up in 1215, granted by King John on June 15 at Runnymede near the River Thames in Surrey. A different version (the one we draw from today) was reissued by John’s son, Henry III, 10 years later in 1225. Magna Carta was finally enrolled on the statute book (meaning it became part of English law) by Edward I in 1297.
How many of the original Magna Carta documents survive?
King John sent copies of the first Magna Carta across his kingdom – though we are not certain about the actual number. Today only four survive: one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Library.
Why was Magna Carta first written and granted?
Despite what it stands for today, Magna Carta was not written with lofty ideas of justice and liberty in mind. It was originally meant as a peace treaty between King John (of Robin Hood fame) and his barons, with whom he was at war. The barons had captured London and John found himself in a political mess – he needed a quick get-out solution.
Did Magna Carta achieve its short-term aims of creating peace?
Not at all – in fact it failed spectacularly. Although John agreed to Magna Carta at first, he quickly became bitter when its terms were forced upon him. He wrote to the Pope to get it annulled. The Pope actually happened to agree with John (for once), saying Magna Carta was “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people”. He then declared the charter “null and void of all validity for ever”.
Full-scale civil war then broke out between John and his barons. It only ended after John’s death from illness in 1216.
Is it true that King John never “signed” Magna Carta?
Yes, at least not in the way we think of signing. Back in the Middle Ages kings never signed their name on documents to pass them into law. Instead John used his Great Seal to authenticate the document. This subtlety has confused many people over the years. Most recently the Royal Mint has been criticised for the design on its commemorative 800th anniversary £2 coin, which shows John brandishing the document and a quill.’