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June 11, 2010

Rt Hon Lord Bingham, “Magna Carta 1215”, St Albans Cathedral

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11 June 2010, Rt Hon Lord Bingham, “Magna Carta 1215”, St Albans Cathedral

The Great Charter, solemnly executed by King John and the Barons on 15 June at Runnymede, in the meadows outside Windsor, is not a customer-friendly document. There is no illumination or decoration such as beautify the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels. The text, densely written in characters which would be small on a bill of lading or a charterparty, defies transliteration by all but the most expert; and even when deciphered the text, in Latin, will call for translation if it is to make sense to most of us. And the amount of sense it makes is limited. If we search the document for resonant statements of democratic principle, such as characterise the American Declaration of Independence or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, we are largely disappointed. Many of the clauses are of local, particular or feudal interest only, about as interesting as our rules for recycling rubbish are likely to be to our descendants 800 years from now. Yet this yellowing parchment, soon to celebrate its 800th birthday, can plausibly claim to be the most influential secular document in the history of the world. In the cities and towns which helped to give it birth, St. Albans notable among them, the source of Magna Carta’s enduring influence deserves in particular, to be explored.

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