January 5, 2015
Magna Carta: the things you didn’t know
The Telegraph, 1st January 2015.
By historian Dan Jones.
This will be the year of Magna Carta. It is a year rich in historical anniversaries, including those of the battles of Agincourt (1415) and Waterloo (1815). But it is the commemoration of King John’s great concession at Runnymede on June 15 1215 that should dominate our thoughts, as we consider the profound influence that the Great Charter has had on eight centuries of history in England, Britain and the English-speaking world.
The celebrations begin this year on February 3. For one day, the only four known copies of Magna Carta 1215 will be brought together for the first time, at the British Library, where they will be seen by the 1,215 people who have won their tickets in a public ballot. There will be plenty more Magna Carta pageantry during the rest of the year, including an exhibition, also at the British Library, a royal visit to Runnymede on the anniversary itself and many other smaller events in towns across the UK – Lincoln, Bury St Edmunds, Salisbury and more – who claim a historic connection with the Great Charter.
But what exactly is Magna Carta? Why was it granted? Does it really speak to the principles of democracy, liberty and human rights with which it is so often associated? And what is the purpose of the charter – if it has one – today? All of these questions are of critical importance as we celebrate eight centuries of Magna Carta, and look towards a ninth.
Magna Carta was a failed peace treaty. It was produced during a civil war between John and a coalition of his barons, known by various titles, including The Army of God and The Northerners.
The issues between these two groups were many and various – which is why Magna Carta is 4,000 words long and is now usually divided into 63 clauses. The grievances it addressed were not only of John’s making. They reached back at least two generations, into the reigns of John’s father, Henry II, and his brother Richard I, “the Lionheart”.