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November 17, 2016

Magna Carta’s American Adventure

Click here to read the full article
By Prof. A. E. Dick Howard. First appeared in North Carolina Law Review (Vol. 94, No. 5 June 2016)

I spent a good part of the summer of 2015 in England, lecturing on aspects of Magna Carta. It seemed that every town, village, or crossroads with any connection to Magna Carta was celebrating the Charter’s eight hundredth anniversary. It’s not surprising to hear about celebrations in the country that gave birth to Magna Carta. But the question I want to put before you tonight is: why should Americans care? After all, Magna Carta’s origins were a long time ago, in a very distant place, born of a struggle between King John and the barons. Why would an American remember Magna Carta?

When I was very small, one of the authors whose books I came to love was A. A. Milne. You Winnie the Pooh buffs will know about Milne. Perhaps you know Milne’s Now We Are Six. One of the poems in the collection is “King John’s Christmas.” It begins,

King John was not a good man –
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.

For a little kid, the idea of being shunned best replica watches – that nobody will speak to you – is really terrible. How could you be so awful that people won’t even talk to you?

Click here to read the full article.

June 14, 2015

It made us free: Melvyn Bragg on Magna Carta

The New Statesman, 12th June 2015
Written by Melvyn Bragg.
Click here to read the original article.

Parliamentary democracy, trial by jury or habeas corpus – it can be argued that all these flowed from this document.

Is it rather stupid and dangerous to take Magna Carta so much for granted, as many of us seem to do, and to think of this attitude as “very English”? Or would it be better to connect it with the present as resolutely as possible, to show the distance travelled in these past 800 years, the achievements despite the setbacks, its uniqueness? Perhaps to take our history too much for granted can be a way of diminishing both the past and the present, especially in this case.

At a recent public meeting about Magna Carta, a member of the platform panel, a well-known public intellectual, leaned forward and to a packed room pronounced with a world-weary confidence: “The fact is that Magna Carta was a squalid little deal.” A few sentences later he added: “Moreover, it did not mention women.” It is difficult to think of a more politically correct, less historically accurate and more impoverished view of history than this, and yet I was the only one who (publicly) protested.

David Carpenter, who has just finished writing a 600-page book on Magna Carta, said that it asserts “for the first time in world history a hugely important constitutional principle of the foundation of liberty, which is that the ruler is subject to the law”.

King John, who sealed (but did not sign; there is no evidence that he could write) Magna Carta appears to have been as the contemporary Benedictine monk Matthew Paris described him: “Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John.” It has proved impossible to launder King John’s reputation. The barons and earls, the archbishop and bishops, men to a man, stopped a tyrant in his tracks; and after many close escapes since then the Big Charter helped create civilised society, and its journey goes on.

The charter spoke through the king to God and to the liberties of the Church. It enhanced the liberties of London, which the earls and barons had just captured. It bundled together a package of laws, most of which are of their time and have fallen off the page. Sadly for some, it said nothing about the rights of women, the welfare state, the trade unions or the euro.

Nor did it say anything about the right to parliamentary democracy, trial by jury or habeas corpus. But it can be argued that all these flowed from and were triggered by this document. And not only in this country, but as time went on, most powerfully in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and as a foundation stone in the constitution of India and elsewhere. After the Second World War, the UN set up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt called a “Magna Carta for all mankind”.

Magna Carta has 63 clauses in abbreviated Latin. Two of them that are still on the statute book, numbers 39 and 40, could be said to have changed the way in which the free world has grown. “No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseised [his lands taken away], or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way ruined; nor will we go against him nor sin against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers, his equals and by the law of the land.” And, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.” These two clauses have so far proved to be indestructible, though often defied. They came to apply to all men and then all women, and have elasticated their earliest purpose to become universal with a legendary, even mythical aura to them.

Soon after the treaty was sealed, King John broke his word. The pope, on his bidding, annulled the charter. This provoked the invasion of England (the first since the Conquest) by the son of the king of France. But after John’s death in 1216 the earls and barons booted out the French invader, rallied round his son and once more the charter was reissued. It went under the statute books in 1225 and was revived in one political crisis after another: 1253, 1267, 1297 . . . From the very beginning it was brandished in the local courts by peasants who saw it as their defence against tyranny.

The great lawyer Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) brought it face to face with the Tudor and the Stuart autocracies. In the English civil wars its time of greatest influence was seen and branded on the English conscience. Sir William Blackstone took it up in the 18th century. Lord Woolf speaks to China on it today; and in the argument about 42-day detention in 2008, Magna Carta was headlined in some of our newspapers.

Magna Carta has become totemic. It is in the comedy of Tony Hancock, in the poetry of Kipling, never far from the front pages in a constitutional crisis. It was copied out by hand. Four copies are remaining and although one is badly damaged, there is not a blot on any of them. Those two clauses hit a nerve in societies all over the world. They have become sacred tablets.

The monuments at Runnymede, where it was signed, both modest, are funded by American lawyers. It is curious that just up the river at Windsor Castle, which King John made his base during the negotiations, we maintain one of the splendid palaces of monarchy – while downriver the ­English have erected a narrow road that belts through those meadows where thousands met for the treaty 800 years ago. And there’s an English tea shop. With a small car park.

How Magna Carta Went Viral

The Smithsonian Mag
By Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
First published 12th June – Click here to read the original article.

In a world before the printing press, how did news of the famous document make the rounds?

In November of last year, a 13th-century copy of Magna Carta went for a drive.

The document—a large, nearly square piece of parchment covered in dense, brownish Latin legalese and bearing a dark green wax seal attached to the bottom with cord—rolled around the City of London in a red and gold horse-drawn coach built for Edward VII. A small camera was fitted to the coach’s ceiling to live-stream the document on its journey. Magna Carta toured London’s financial heart in the company of a Chinese dragon, people in fish costumes riding segways, a Viking ship, a group of Maasai dancers, and Napoleon Bonaparte. It was not, as you might imagine, how a copy of Magna Carta would have traveled in 1215, the year of its first sealing.

The copy’s public appearance was part of the Lord Mayor’s Show, the annual parade celebrating the installation of the Lord Mayor of the City of London in office (incidentally, the first Lord Mayor’s Show also took place in 1215). But the real occasion for the outing was as a reminder that the upcoming year would be an important one: 2015, the 800th anniversary of a document celebrated as the keystone of modern democracy, a symbol of the inalienable rights of humankind and the spiritual ancestor of the United States Constitution and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To be clear, the copy of Magna Carta that took a drive around the City of London last year dates from 1297, the year it was re-issued and sealed by King Edward I. It is not an “original”; it’s not even based on an original, but instead is a re-issuing of a 1225 version, itself a reissue of a 1217 version, which was again a reissue of a 1216 version. That it is a copy of a copy of a copy speaks to how Magna Carta evolved from the practical resolution of a civil emergency into the totemic enshrinement of liberty that it is today. And it speaks to how Magna Carta went, for lack of a better term, viral.

The story of how Magna Carta was communicated is tied up in how it came to be. King John, one of the great, mustache-twirling villains of British history, and a pack of angry barons, rebels whose main coup was taking control of London, spent June 10 through June 19, 1215 in tense negotiation at the Thames-side meadow of Runnymede. A settlement was reached, and John’s oath to uphold it was given in exchange for the barons’ pledge of allegiance.

This settlement was quickly issued as a royal charter, a proclamation by the king; most of its 63 clauses dealt with grievances about his abuse of feudal custom and detailed actions to curtail it. John, who’d lost a lot of money fighting unsuccessful wars in France, had been using his feudal rights to extort money from his nobles, and when they couldn’t pay, he seized their land and took their family members hostage.

Buried among the stipulations regarding the removal of fish-weirs from the Thames and specifying the rights of wealthy widows were several clauses that would have centuries-long relevance, though no one could have known that at the time. These guaranteed the Church the freedom to handle its business without interference from the throne; that no free man could be imprisoned or outlawed except by the lawful judgment of his equals; and that the right to justice could not be sold, denied or delayed. It wasn’t, as the myth of Magna Carta might imply, the first time that these things were recorded—England had been an established political entity since well before the Norman Conquest in 1066, with laws both customary and written. Rather, Magna Carta represented the first time that they’d been outlined in conjunction with the implicit declaration that the king himself was subject to these laws. Big news—but how, in the absence of a printing press, telegraph, 24-hour news cycle or the Internet, did anyone hear about it?

The answer is murky. What happened at Runnymede is unclear beyond the broad strokes (furious barons in full armor, king in a tight corner), although John’s showdown with his barons probably didn’t include an official Magna Carta document as we might think of it. And it certainly wouldn’t have concluded with him dramatically impressing his seal on anything; this was not a moment for theater, whatever later historians with overheated imaginations might want to believe.

“I think the main thing that the general public will assume that when they go to see Magna Carta is that they think they’re seeing something that was on the isle of Runnymede or that the king signed or sealed and everybody looked, and that is almost certainly not the case,” explained Tessa Webber, a lecturer in palaeography at Cambridge. It is more likely that a draft version of the text hashed out during negotiations, both overt and covert, in the previous weeks and months, was read out to the assembled parties. Once John swore his oath, the 63 clauses would have been pulled together in a charter, not yet called Magna Carta (“Great Charter”), but the “Charter of Liberties”. Who actually wrote the first text is unknown, but some evidence points to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, one of the architects of the Runnymede negotiations. This text was then copied out in heavily abbreviated Medieval Latin on parchment by trained scribes of the royal chancery, the king’s records and communications office. These “engrossments”, as they’re called, were then affixed with the King’s Great Seal, the physical representation of his authority, and sent out via royal messengers. Simple enough, right?

“When I’m trying to envision what happens in 1215, it’s not like creating one single document. It’s more like sending an email to multiple recipients, and then it gets copied again, or cut and pasted,” said Julian Harrison, co-curator of the British Library’s major exhibition on Magna Carta. Except, this was a message that needed to be copied out by hand by a team of specialists turning around on a tight schedule, that could travel only as fast as a person on a horse could go, and that ultimately might not have even been understood by the very people who needed to enact it. Less simple.

There are four surviving 1215 Magna Cartas, two held by the British Library and one each at Lincoln and Salisbury cathedrals. Each bears the seal date June 15, 1215, although it’s unclear whether they were actually in existence on that day; there was precedent for documents to bear the date they were orally agreed, not the date they were physically sealed. There could have been as many as 41 such copies, one for each shire, or county, and the Cinque Ports, the five ports on the coast of Kent and Sussex. Each of the remaining copies is in a different hand, and each is a different size and shape—one is landscape, two are portrait and one is almost square—written on sheepskin parchment.

Sheepskin was turned into parchment by soaking it in a strong lye solution, making it easier to scrape off the hair and flesh. Then the skin was stretched on a frame to dry under tension, scraped smooth with a crescent-shaped knife called a lunular and trimmed. The individual sheepskin dictates the shape and size of the parchment that results: “You deal with the sheep you’ve got,” says Webber. Given the length of the text—roughly 4,000 words of shorthand Medieval Latin, probably one of the longest documents produced to date—it’s unlikely that a single sheep could have produced more than one Magna Carta.

The ink was made by the same scribe who used it from a combination of water, mineral dust, gum arabic (as a binding agent) and powdered oak-gall, also known as oak-apple. Oak-gall is one of nature’s weirder treasures: When a gall wasp lays its eggs in the bark or on the leaves of an oak tree, the tree forms a smooth ball, like a boil, around the larvae. Inside the ball is tannic acid, which, when in combination with the other ingredients, seems to almost etch into the skin of the parchment. The black ink would have been applied with a quill, a flight feather taken from a goose or a swan. A right-handed scribe held a left wing feather, which curved into the hand; roughly every 10 lines of cramped, spidery scratching, he’d pause to trim the nib with a penknife and dip it into the ink.

Each copy had to be the work of a single scribe, to reduce the opportunity for and appearance of tampering. “You weren’t meant to have any erasures … You weren’t meant to leave any spaces,” Webber explains: Erasures could be construed as signs of forgery, while spaces could leave enough room to squeeze in something unwanted. This is not to say that mistakes weren’t made—the minor variations between the four 1215 Magna Cartas attest to that—but rather that this was precise, hand-cramping, eye-watering work (at least the scribes working on those Magna Cartas would have enjoyed a bit more daylight to work with, being that it was summer).

Once the copies were made, they were each sealed—not signed, which was not a tradition yet and in any case, there is no evidence that John could write—meaning that an impression of the King’s Great Seal was made in a lump of softened beeswax and resin and attached to the bottom of the document by cord. The king himself, however, didn’t do the honors; his Lord Chancellor, the Keeper of the Seal and one of the highest ranking officials in government, would have, or there would have even been yet another person, called a “spigurnel”, to actually apply the seal to the wax. “Royal administration is evolving and getting more complex,” Webber explains. “Titles are quite honorific, and that means you get a package of privileges … but the actual doing of things would have been done by someone less rewarded. This is bureaucracy, basically.” Only one of the four 1215 Magna Cartas still bears King John’s seal, although this copy was badly damaged by a fire in 1731; the wax melted and now resembles an ancient piece of chewed gum.

It’s unknown exactly how long it would have taken to produce a single copy of Magna Carta, but we do know that at least seven copies were ready for dissemination by June 24, 1215—there’s a memo from that date to the effect that two copies were to be delivered to the bishop of Lincoln, one to the bishop of Worcester, and four to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s steward. Another memo indicates that six more copies were sent out on July 22, again to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s steward. The relative haste with which they were produced and sent out gives some clue as to the document’s importance; regular charters could afford to languish a bit.

There was already a fairly robust system of communication between the Crown and the country dating back to at least the 10th century. This was largely in the form of the sealed writ, a kind of dashed-off memo that bore the king’s seal and would be sent off to the shires. Charters, although they were more formal documents, went the same way, carried by royal messengers via “established routes,” says Julia Barrow, director of the University of Leeds’ Institute for Medieval Studies. Any charter, and Magna Carta was no exception, could only travel as fast as the messenger carrying it. At maximum, that’s about 20 to 25 miles a day on horseback—roughly the distance from Runnymede to, say, the Tower of London (then in the hands of the rebel barons). If, as evidence suggests, a messenger changed mounts at staging posts, he could cover as much as 60 to 80 miles a day, and the copies could have traveled to the corners of the kingdom within a week, Barrow says.

Some did, but not all copies would have traveled via royal messenger moving posthaste. In the case of Lincoln Cathedral’s copy, for example, it went with Bishop Hugh of Wells, who had been at Runnymede and who reached Lincoln, a distance of some 140 miles, by June 30, 1215. Harrison is inclined to think that it took rather longer to spread the physical copies around the country: “It’s not instantaneous, it would have been over a period of weeks and months.” More importantly, perhaps, word about what had happened—”which essentially was that John lost,” Barrow says—would have traveled person-to-person probably faster than the physical documents.

However long it took, it seems likely that copies would have been put in the hands of the earls of the shires and bishops in county cathedrals; this is how other writs and royal charters were disseminated, and there’s no reason to believe Magna Carta was an exception. To publicize it, Magna Carta was probably read out at the cathedral and/or a shire court meeting held at a local great hall. (The shire courts, in existence since the Anglo-Saxon kings and made up of the local earl, bishop, and sheriff, were the primary locus of civic justice.) It’s difficult to picture what such a meeting would have looked like, when it would be held, who would be there and how many people from feudal England’s various strata would have attended. But we do know that the charter was probably read out in the vernacular French, Anglo-Norman, that was spoken by the social and political elite of the country—a surprising number of written translations into French from near the time of the sealing survive, including one that appears to have been intended to be read out at the county court of Hampshire.

“It probably would have taken a bit of time, it’s a long document,” says Barrow. Most towns in England boasted a fee-paying school by this time, a marked improvement on the days when the only schools were in monasteries; however, only a small percentage of the population could spare the money or the child labor, so readers remained a relatively small group and mostly male. Among the more likely to be able to read, however, were members of the aristocratic, religious and clerk classes.

Whether those hearing it would have understood what it was enacting in any language, however, is another question—though the document would have been fairly well known, it was probably haphazardly applied. Historian J.C. Holt, in his seminal 1992 analysis of Magna Carta, noted, “On the whole they knew very little of the contents of the Charter and this must have been equally true of those who were required to act on it in 1215. … As news of the settlement at Runnymede spread throughout the land, it can only have loosened the reins of government, encouraged attacks on local officials, tempted men into invading royal rights or resorting to self-help against both Crown and neighbour. The Charter must have started many a local war.”

It’s also unlikely that the “people” in a broader sense would have really learned much about Magna Carta. In one sense, Magna Carta would have only been minimally important to the vast majority of people living in England: “When it talks about ‘free men’, it’s not talking about free men in the modern sense, it’s talking about men at the top echelons of medieval society, because it’s a feudal society,” Harrison says. “In 1215, [Magna Carta] wouldn’t have had a significant bearing on people’s life.” Yet, in another sense, it did. It dealt with the practicalities of financial burden, which, though levied against the highest echelon, was also borne by the lowest; moreover, the civil war that occasioned it marked the first time in more than 40 years that war had touched the English countryside, so people would have cared—but they wouldn’t have cared that much.

Which is just as well, because in reality, John, a notorious oath-breaker, probably never intended to honor Magna Carta. “We kind of think that King John in way never expected people to read it, it was just a way of getting out of a tight political corner. He probably thought the Pope will annul it and he’ll live to fight another day, and it didn’t quite happen that way,” says Harrison. “I think he would have been horrified if he knew we’d be celebrating it today, I really do.”

However important and unprecedented Magna Carta was, its immediate impact was blunted by the fact that, at John’s request, Pope Innocent III issued a papal bull annulling it (and excommunicating the rebels) just 10 weeks after its sealing. He didn’t take much convincing: “The Pope thought it was an abomination,” says Harrison; he was horrified by what he perceived as the overthrow of the natural order of society and the violation of God’s law. That the copies of the charter weren’t destroyed is both something of a mystery and a miracle; after all, this was a failed treaty denounced by the highest power in the land. It’s possible they were just archived in cathedrals and forgotten; it makes sense, then, that three out of four of the surviving copies are confirmed cathedral copies. And as Webber pointed out, churches were the safest places for important archives: “They had stone buildings and cupboards and chests for keeping things safe … they had better resources than the secular institutions; and what religious institutions have is institutional continuity.”

Within just a few months of Runnymede, the barons openly rebelled again, plunging the country into a civil war worse than the one that had resulted in Magna Carta. The document probably would have been forgotten altogether if it hadn’t been for the fact that King John died of dysentery (reportedly after too many peaches and new cider) in October of 1216. John’s 9-year-old son, now King Henry III, was put under the guardianship of the canny knight, William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, John’s most loyal ally and one of the architects of the Magna Carta agreement. Marshal, acting as regent for the young king, issued a revised version of Magna Carta in November 1216 in an effort to bring the remaining rebel barons back into the fold and to “bind the kingdom together,” Barrow says. It didn’t entirely work, and Marshal re-issued it yet again, with some more revisions, in 1217. It was after this that the charter became known as Magna Carta.

“The idea of it was too important to be dropped,” explains Barrow. Indeed, Magna Carta’s significance in the legal, political and social landscape of England began to snowball. In 1225, Henry III, acting of his own “free will” but in response to his barons’ demands, sealed a revision of the charter that reduced the number of clauses to 37. This would not be the last time Henry III would use Magna Carta as a bargaining chip, a promise of good government in exchange for fealty: In his 56 years of rule, Henry promised more than 10 times to uphold the Great Charter. In 1265, in the midst of yet another baronial rebellion and under house arrest, Henry III reconfirmed Magna Carta and, crucially for the continued dissemination of the document, ordered that it be read out once a year in shire courts. The Church too played a major role in entrenching Magna Carta in society (not the least because the first clause guaranteed the Church’s freedom). From the 1250s, Magna Carta was being read out regularly in church in Latin, Anglo-Norman and, now, the English of the people; from 1253, anyone who broke any of the Charter’s terms faced excommunication.

Finally, in 1297, Edward I, that steel-fisted tyrant also called Longshanks, faced discontent from his increasingly fractious and financially taxed subjects. His chancellors reissued the 1225 version of the charter with his seal, ordered that it be read twice a year in cathedrals and, most significantly, added it to the Statute Rolls, enshrining it into English law. That any copies of the 1215 Magna Carta survive is even more remarkable given the number of times it was reissued—most copyholders would have destroyed the now meaningless older version when the new one was issued. It’s pure happenstance in some cases that copies were discovered; one probably apocryphal story goes that a copy of Magna Carta, one of those in the British Library, was discovered by a 17th-century London tailor just as he was about to cut it up for pattern-making paper.

Referenced in judicial proceedings as law, appealed to as a standard in political rhetoric, Magna Carta was becoming a kind of totem against the tyranny of the kings, not only for the political elite, but also for the layman. By the close of the 13th century, Magna Carta’s impact had spread well beyond its initial intent as the preservation of the rights of the baronial few (with a few bones thrown to the layfolk), and it was beginning to take on the gloss of the iconic document it became. By the 17th century, it was so deeply entrenched that a proposal to move the meeting of the court known as “The Bench” from its drafty corner of Westminster Hall was met with shocked disapproval from the Chief Justice, on the grounds that moving it even “the distance of an inch” would violate the charter. That reluctance to mess with an almost thoroughly outdated text meant that it wasn’t until the 19th and even 20th century that clauses like number 23—”No vill or man will be forced to build bridges at river banks except those who ought to do so by tradition and law”—were repealed. Now, only three-and-a-half clauses remain on the books.

And yet, everyone loves Magna Carta. Cambridge professor of history Sir Edward Shepherd Creasey noted with some amusement in a pamphlet titled “The Textbook of the Constitution”, “Magna Carta, in particular, is on everybody’s lips but in nobody’s hands; and, though perpetually talked of, is generally talked of in utter ignorance of its contents.” Creasey was writing in 1848, but he could have been speaking at virtually any time since 1215. (And today, it’s literally on lips, or at least the lips of the infants with parents so insufferable as to buy them Magna Carta pacifiers, just one of a bewildering array of Magna Carta-emblazoned tchotchkes.) As a standard of law, it’s not much. But as an idea, “it gets reinvented, and it proves to be highly adaptable,” Harrison says. “And unintentionally, it contains some really key statements that have really resonated over time.” So much so that now, Harrison says one of his colleagues frequently receives emails from people asking whether Magna Carta could help them get out of parking fines.

What traveled in messengers’ bags in 1215, what was read out in cathedrals with nearly the same sanctity as the Bible through the Middle Ages, what became a touchstone of human rights law through the Enlightenment and beyond wasn’t just the words of Magna Carta. It was what people believed they said. In his 1941 inauguration address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history … It was written in Magna Carta.”

Not exactly, but close enough.

June 3, 2015

Transatlantic crossing for historic documents

The Durham Times, Tuesday 2nd June.
By Gavin Havery.
Click here to read the original article.

Durham Cathedral is making history by sending one of its three priceless Magna Carta issues across the Atlantic this week.

It is the first time the document, which dates back to 1300, will have ever left its North-East home and will be sent along with the accompanying Forest Charter.

They are heading overseas as part of a national exhibition, which will tour four Canadian cities until December.

Starting in Ottawa, the exhibition will give Canadians a unique opportunity to come face-to-face with the documents.

Cathedral guide and senior steward Gordon Summerbell had the idea to loan them following a family holiday four years ago.

It has been organised to mark the 800th anniversary of the creation of the original Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede in 1215 and coincides with an exhibition of the 1216 copy at Palace Green Library, near Durham Cathedral, over the summer.

The 74-year-old retired bank manager, from Shotley Bridge, in County Durham, and his wife, Rosemary, and her sister Bernadette Toner, will be guests of Magna Carta Canada at the Canadian Museum of History when the exhibition is launched in Ottawa next week.

He said: “One of the ideas is that the reputation of Durham will be pushed to the fore, and of course that will include the cathedral.”

The documents will be the centrepiece of a bilingual, interpretive and interactive exhibit based on three themes: History, Legacy and Justice Today.

A bilingual documentary film, Magna Carta: The Enduring Struggle for Rights and Freedoms, will also be featured as part of the exhibition.

Suzy Rodness, co-chair of Magna Carta Canada, said: “Durham Cathedral’s gracious generosity in bringing this original issue of the Magna Carta to us has afforded Canadians a tactile, tangible, teachable moment.”

Click here for more information about Magna Carta and Canada.

May 21, 2015

The Times Advocacy competition: Do we need a new Magna Carta for the digital age?

The Times, Student Law
Wednesday 21st May.
Click here to read the original article.

Trolls, instrusive advertising and surveillance: a debate is growing about the need for the protection of our privacy
The digital revolution of the past two decades has transformed our lives. But the promise of a communications Utopia has now turned sour in a bleak landscape of trolls, intrusive advertising and Big Brother surveillance.

So the question for entrants to this year’s Times Student Advocacy competition sponsored by Herbert Smith Freehills is: “Do we need a new Magna Carta for the digital age?”

The competition is open to all students registered with a UK academic institution, with prizes on offer worth £6,500.

Click here for more information on how to enter.

May 18, 2015

Treason! Magna Carta barons face trial 800 years on

The Telegraph
By Patrick Sawer, 17th May.
Click here to read the article as it originally appeared.

The Barons and Bishops who forced King John to sign Magna Carta, enshrining key rights such as rule of law and protection of property, are to face ‘charges of treason’ – 800 years after the historic document was written.

They have long been credited with helping to lay the foundations of the British state as we know it today, based on the rule of law, the right to a fair trial and the protection of private property.

But this summer the Barons and Bishops who forced King John to agree to the Magna Carta are to be tried for treason – 800 years after the historic signing of the document at Runnymede, Berkshire, on June 15, 2015.
Senior lawyers, including the President of the UK Supreme Court, will sit in judgment on the Barons and Bishops who gathered by the River Thames after refusing to surrender London to King John to decide whether they acted lawfully or were in fact guilty of treasonable behaviour.

Advocates from across the Commonwealth will make the cases for the prosecution and the defence when the mock-trial is staged on July 31 at Westminster Hall, central London.

The signing of the Magna Carta – drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons – was designed to ensure the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown.

Sir Robert Worcester, Chair of the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, said: “The stage is being set for a show trial that will be more than just a bit of historical themed fun – the evidence being examined by these eminent judges will help explore some timeless questions of legal and constitutional importance. Is the King above the law? Is there ever a defence for breaking a solemn promise?”

Lord Judge, the former Lord Chief Justice, who is playing the role of William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke – described as ‘the greatest knight that ever lived’ – at the mock trial John, said:

“While the weight of modern scholarship certainly suggests the barons’ and bishops’ resistance was the right thing to do, this the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is a chance to test whether a court of law would say that their ends justified their means.

“In doing so, we’ll be exploring some of the key themes of Magna Carta, the rights of subjects, the limits on the power of monarchy, and the meaning of the rule of law.”

Magna Carta was an attempt to enforce the principle that not even the king was above the Common Law of the land and that the monarch’s powers could be held in check for the good of the country.

Thirteen copies of Magna Carta, or Magna Carta Libertatum – Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties” – were quickly made, complete with spelling mistakes, and distributed throughout the kingdom, and displayed to the public in the great cathedrals of England.

Although it was quickly annulled by Pope Innocent III, on the grounds that it was illegal and had been signed by King John under duress, Magna Carta went on to inspire wider challenges to absolutist monarchs and demands for greater liberty and justice for ordinary men and women, including the English Civil War and execution of Charles I; the American War of Independence; and the French Revolution.

July’s mock-trial is being staged to determine whether the Barons and Bishops behind the document were justified in law in breaching their promise to surrender London to King John and then forcing him to sign the document limiting his powers.

The trial will be judged by Lord Neuberger, President of the UK Supreme Court; Dame Sian Elisa, Chief justice of New Zealand and the Hon. Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.

King John will appear as a witness for the prosecution.

Among the witnesses for the defence will be Sir Robert Rogers, now Lord Lisvane, who was until last August the Clerk to the House of Commons. He is expected to argue that Parliamentary democracy might not exist today where it not for the actions of the Barons at Runnymede.

The two-hour mock-trial is being staged by the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary, with around half of the 800 seats at Westminster Hall open to members of the public via a ballot to be held at the end of June.

Sir Robert added: “I hope people from across the country, of all ages and backgrounds, enter the draw for tickets to come and witness what I am sure will be one of the highlights of this year of commemorations.”

For more information on the trial and the events commemorating the anniversary of Magna Carta go to

Would you like to be in the stands at the Mock Trial? Public tickets are available through our sign – up form on the Magna Carta 800th website here.

March 5, 2015

King John reunited with Magna Carta

4 March 2015

King John has been reunited with Magna Carta at a special event to commemorate Worcestershire as the Home of Liberty and Democracy.

Thirteenth Century barons have stormed their way into the historic Worcester Cathedral, resting place of King John and home of his great tomb, surmounted by the oldest royal effigy in England.

There they confronted him with a copy of Magna Carta, recreating the moment 800 years ago that put in place one of the most important building blocks on the road to democracy in Britain and the world.

The re-enactment highlights the role Worcestershire has played time and again in the struggle for Liberty and Democracy. From Magna Carta to the English Civil War and beyond, the beautiful hills, lands and rivers of Worcestershire have borne witness to the struggles and battles that have created the freedoms we enjoy today.

To celebrate this legacy, an unparalleled programme of historic, immersive and fun events will take place here in the heart of England over the next 18 months. Details of all events can be found at The main events are listed later in this press pack.

Worcestershire, Home of Liberty and Democracy is a programme supported by Worcestershire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), Worcester Cathedral, Museums Worcestershire, the Simon de Montfort Society, Battle of Evesham 2015, Worcestershire County Council, Worcester City Council, Wychavon District Council, Worcestershire Historical Society, Visit Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce and the University of Worcester.

King John and Magna Carta

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta by King John. For the first time, the rule of law was given precedence over the rule of the monarch.

By the time of this momentous event on 19 June 1215, King John had already formed a special relationship with Worcester and the surrounding county. He often visited Worcester Cathedral to worship at the shrine of Saint Wulfstan. His favourite hunting grounds were nearby in forests at Wyre, Feckenham and The Chase.

But his relationship with the county was destined to be bittersweet. As civil war brewed and the King was forced to concede many of his powers under Magna Carta, Worcester declared for the rebellious barons.

In July 1216, the King’s forces recaptured the city, but the monarch’s days were numbered. He died in October that year, specifying in his will that he be buried in Worcester Cathedral. His will and artefacts will be on display in the Cathedral library from September 2015.

John’s great tomb is a masterpiece of early thirteenth-century sculpture. It gives Worcestershire a direct link to the story of Magna Carta, and to the story of Liberty and Democracy, that is genuinely unique.

The Very Reverend Peter Atkinson, Dean of Worcester, said: “Worcester Cathedral boasts a unique role in the story of Magna Carta that no other place can claim. We have King John’s tomb and his will, giving visitors a direct connection with the monarch who, whether he liked it or not, sealed the document that established the principle of the rule of law.”

To read more about Magna Carta and Worcester, and to find events nearby, click here.

October 12, 2011

The Magna Carta: Ideas for All Seasons

Rex no potest peccare (The King can do no wrong)

How many of you have read Unbroken, the bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand about Olympic runner Louis Zamperini ‘s experiences in World War II? Perhaps you will remember the part when Louie and his friends are in a particularly brutal Japanese prisoner of war camp where the Geneva Conventions are ignored and the rule of law is only a memory. In effort to distract themselves from mind numbing cold and starvation, the prisoners take to discussing the Magna Carta and its effect on medieval history. How amazing that in the midst of such deprivation, men on the edge of death focused on the Magna Carta. What a poignant example of the power and durability of the ideas in the Magna Carta. Powerful ideas – those that resonate within the human spirit — endure despite the historical accidents of their creation. The origin of this magnificent heritage was not promising. On the one side was an incompetent reckless King and on the other, a small group of landed hereditary nobility who were tired of the King’s endless demands.

We venerate the idea of the Magna Carta — that freedom is secured under the rule of law and that no person is above the law — even though the Magna Carta or The Great Charter as it later came to be called, was literally nullified within weeks of its sealing. The creation of the Magna Carta was a revolutionary response by a ruling class of barons who were not much different from the despotic monarch they despised. The Magna Carta gave life to the concept that individuals had rights against the previously unlimited power of the state. On June 15, 1215, on a beautiful meadow in Runnymede, halfway between London and the still royal palace at Windsor, 25 of England’s most powerful barons presented a document to King John essentially requiring the King to follow certain rules in dealing with English nobility and, especially, with their property. As was the custom with royal edicts, the King “sealed” the document, signifying approval.

Within days, seven copies of the document sealed by King John were issued from Runnymede and circulated throughout the kingdom; within weeks, six more were issued from Oxford. Even as these Magna Carta copies were being circulated, King John dispatched his envoys to Rome to complain to Pope Innocent III that he had been compelled by “force and fear” to seal the document. By mid-September, 1215, King John’s envoys had returned with papal edicts declaring the Magna Carta contract to be null and void. The Magna Carta had been in effect less than 90 days. Although reissued three times during the reign of John’s son, Henry III, and confirmed by the Crown more than 30 times thereafter, the provisions of the 63 specific “chapters” of the 1215 Magna Carta have largely been repealed and, in any event, never again existed in precisely the form presented to King John at Runnymede in June, 1215.

Remarkably, even though the Magna Carta’s specific provisions were abandoned or repealed, this was no 90 day flameout. Today, somewhere between a quarter and a third of all mankind is governed according to the principles it enshrined. We trace our written constitution, our right to equality and due process under law, our right to a jury trial and our habeas corpus rights to the document presented to King John on June 15, 1215.

The Magna Carta really represents two separate meanings, one literal and one symbolic. The literal meaning arises from the circumstances of 13th Century England and the dispute between and among a tyrannical and foolish monarch, a powerful Church based in Rome and a largely independent group of hereditary noblemen who were increasingly impatient with the personal cost to them of the King’s bad decisions. The symbolic meaning developed over time and is reflective of an ever changing political landscape. The literal meaning came to reference the rights enforced against a monarch by the English nobility; it was the resolution of a power struggle. The symbolic meaning became, and is, increasingly associated with a concept we call the “rule of law”, defined as an impartial justice system which is predictable and fair and which treats all people equally. It might be useful to take a few minutes to review the historical context in which the Magna Carta arose since it does help us to understand the symbol which the Magna Carta became.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of
things. Machiavelli

Historians now think that there was probably very little pomp and ceremony attendant to the proceedings at Runnymede. King John clearly did not want to be a participant but had little choice. The 25 Barons were angry mostly about a seeming never ending increase in royal taxes and required payments but also had little choice. Unlike other times of feudal rebellions in English history, there was no readily identifiable royal replacement for the reigning king. King John believed, probably correctly, that he would be killed if he did not agree to the Barons’ terms.

Much of the language of the 1215 Magna Carta had been smoothed by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury whose appointment by Pope Innocent III King John had initially opposed. The document which emerged from this turmoil was the product of three competing judicial traditions: royal, ecclesiastical and baronial.

The royal justice system involved all matters that affected the King’s “peace,” whether directly or indirectly. Needless to say, these courts broadly interpreted matters affecting the King’s peace and were often seen as arbitrary and unfair. The Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome, ran the ecclesiastic courts which maintained jurisdiction not only over matters involving the Church’s clergy and religious offenses but most moral, marital and testamentary matters. Barons were given their titles and their large tracts of real property by the Crown; in turn, a Baron, as Lord of the Manor, was given authority to hear disputes involving his tenants who had agreed to work the land in exchange for shelter and security.

King John, whose reputation as wretched monarch has not changed much in the last 800 years, managed to alienate both the ecclesiastical and baronial jurisdictions early in his reign as King. During the first ten years of his monarchy, King John was constantly at odds with the Church since he regarded the Pope to be subordinate to the Crown, a view not shared by the Pope. The Holy Roman Empire, as the Church was frequently known, regarded itself to be a separate and independent sovereign that had shared power with the Crown since its agreement with English King Henry I about one hundred years earlier. The agreement essentially provided that while the nomination of the archbishops serving in England would remain with the Crown, the power to confirm the bishops through the granting of their religious symbols and authority remained with the Church.

This compromise worked well until King John’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury was rejected by Pope Innocent III who substituted his own choice, Stephen Langton, a man of “superior moral and intellectual greatness. ” King John’s response to Archbishop Langton’s appointment was to confiscate all of the Church’s property in England. This, of course, did not sit well with the Pope who excommunicated King John, suspended religious sacraments in England and declared the English empire a “forfeit from God.” King John was neither smart enough nor strong enough to withstand this kind of pressure from Rome and ultimately capitulated, giving England to the papacy and receiving it back as a “fief” which meant that the Crown was now subordinate to Rome and required to pay homage to the pope. These concessions seemed to have assuaged Pope Innocent III who became a “cautious” ally of the King.

Law and justice are not the same. Gloria Steinem

The Barons’ dissatisfaction with King John was based on systemic and increasingly abusive requirements of the royal justice system. King Henry II had created a centralized royal justice system which the King’s officials administered in a uniform manner to all English people in common and thus the phrase “common law.” Although all litigants appearing in the king’s courts theoretically would be treated the same, almost unlimited discretion was vested in the power of the Crown. It was this potential for arbitrary power that was exploited by King John and lead eventually to the Magna Carta.

King John evidenced great skills as an abuser of judicial prerogatives. He regularly sold legal rights and privileges to the highest bidder and used the judicial system to reward favorites and punish enemies. Before a matter could be heard in a royal court, the parties were required to pay “monarch fees” which were neither uniform nor fair. If the Crown was in need of revenue — which was frequently the case during King John’s reign – litigation fees were increased to cover the royal need without reference to the dispute involved. There were fees for postponements and fees for nearly every aspect of the proceedings and these fees were separate and distinct from fines imposed on losing parties or to purchase freedom in case of incarceration.

Litigants who could not afford to pay the legal fees set by the Crown were forced to borrow from the King in order to pursue a case. Not surprisingly, the terms of these loan agreements were harsh, usually requiring the debtor/litigant to pledge his estate, personal property and, on occasion, family members. Some of the provisions of the 1215 Magna Carta seem peculiar until one understands that on more than one occasion, friends and family members of a debtor were literally held hostage by King John until the loan was repaid in full.

Of course, the King could also simply “forgive” a loan because the debtor was a friend, was a necessary political ally or had provided an “invaluable” service. During King John’s reign, the “invaluable” service usually involved military duty. In the 13th century, all barons were required to serve in the King’s army as well as providing a specific number of knights for military service. As was true with most things, a money fine could be paid to the King in lieu of service and a tax, called “scutage”, could be paid in lieu of knights’ service. Since these were obligations owed to the King, the King could, and did, increase these fines and taxes at whim. King John did so frequently to finance his many military campaigns and to pay the mercenaries he hired to fight on his behalf.

King John was no better a soldier than he was statesman or monarch. With each military defeat, the economic demands on the barons caused by King John’s failures seemed more ludicrous and less justified. By 1215, many barons had renounced loyalty to King John and were actively plotting his overthrow. Of course, this was not unique to1215; almost every English King after William the Conqueror had faced rebellious nobility. This time was different, however, in that there was no “obvious replacement” for King John who had, according to some historians, murdered several potential substitutes. Consequently, the barons decided to focus on King John’s “oppressive government”, particularly the abuses of the legal system which were so costly to them. King John offered to submit the barons’ complaints to a committee of arbitration, chaired by his new best friend, Pope Innocent III. But the Barons were having none of that and, on June 10, 1215, they entered London in force through the open gates of the city. This normally would have been the signal for violent rebellion and King John, then safely ensconced at Windsor Castle, knew it.

It was out of these circumstances that the “Articles of the Barons,” later called the Magna Carta, was sealed by King John in the Runnymede meadow on June 15, 1215. In exchange for the King agreeing to their demands, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John on June 19, 1215. Seen in this context, the Magna Carta is less a statement of lofty legal principles than a pragmatic attempt by the English barons to limit the monarch’s otherwise unlimited powers while protecting their privileges. Almost every one of the Magna Carta “chapters” addresses an issue arising directly from the complaints described above.

The grievances that King John promised to redress in the Magna Carta reflect both the complaints motivating the barons and, almost coincidentally, provide its subsequent symbolic importance. The 1215 Magna Carta promised that justice would not be “sold denied or delayed,” and ensured that certain rights and procedures would be “granted freely.” You now understand the importance of its guarantee of the safe return of hostages, lands, castles and family members who had been, or were being, held as “security” for military service or loan agreements. Its other provisions similarly addressed the various abuses employed during King John’s reign.

As I said earlier, however, the Magna Carta was swiftly annulled by Pope Innocent III, finding it a “shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the King by violence and fear” and releasing King John from his oath to obey it. That action plunged England into a civil war known at the First Barons’ War as the barons reverted to a more traditional type of rebellion, replacing a disliked monarch with one whom they liked better. In that instance, and as perhaps the best evidence of the barons’ desperation, the crown of England was offered to Prince Louis of France. As a means of preventing war or as a method of dispute resolution, the 1215 Magna Carta was a failure and was only legally valid for, at most, three months.

However, as a symbol of a written contract between the governed and the government, the Magna Carta endured to become the basis of our own written constitution. What began as essentially a peace treaty between the barons and the king evolved into the basis for constitutional government in the United States and elsewhere. Ironically, it was the death of King John in 1216 which assured that the Magna Carta would survive. At the conclusion of the civil war in 1217, the Magna Carta was reissued on behalf of Henry III, John’s young son. It is that version of the Magna Carta which is with us here today and which became part of English constitutional law, confirmed by later kings and interpreted by Parliament. The differences between and among the many versions of the Magna Carta have occupied scholars for centuries but that is a discussion for another time. What is clear, however, is that the ideas which found their first expression in 1215 in the document forced upon King John have come to us in an almost unbroken path to form the basis of much of our constitutional tradition.

No shall any person be. . .deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. United States Constitution

Everything from the phrase “due process of law” to the right of trial by jury, to the concept of habeas corpus, to the American Revolutionary slogan of “no taxation without representation” to the Equal Protection Clause which forms the basis for both the civil rights and equal rights campaigns can be found either explicitly or by inference in the Magna Carta as even a brief examination of the Magna Carta will show.

The phrase “law of the land” appears throughout the Magna Carta without ever being defined. Nevertheless, it is this phrase which forms the basis for much of the document’s symbolic meaning and modern day courts have found relevant constitutional meaning in the context in which it was used.

In the American colonies, the Magna Carta’s “law of the land” phrase became equated with “due process of law,” a legal principle that has been the cornerstone of procedural fairness in American civil and criminal trials since the late 1700’s. The “due process clause” of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution by itself and through its incorporation into the 14th Amendment is the foundation of both procedural fairness in American law and courts and as the basis for fundamental substantive rights, like the right to privacy. Similarly, the Magna Carta linked this “law of the land” notion with the right to a trial by jury, providing that “no free man” would be “seized, imprisoned,. . .outlawed or exiled or injured in any way. . . except by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land, [emphasis added]. In 1215, “lawful judgment of his peers” was accomplished through a proceeding in which 12 knights or landowners familiar with the subject at issue took an oath and swore to testify truthfully about what they knew based on their own observations and other first hand sources. This process, which gave rise to many of our otherwise inexplicable evidentiary rules, was a form of peaceful fact finding far preferable to the trial by battle which characterized dispute resolution before that time. This process of adjudicating disputes by a jury of one’s “peers” became embodied in the 7th Amendment to the United States Constitution as the modern day right to trial by jury by a “truly representative” cross section of the community.

The same section of the Magna Carta also contains the seeds of modern habeas corpus, a legal phrase frequently used and perhaps less often understood. Habeas corpus, which literally means “to bring the body,” is a proceeding to determine whether a person who is jailed, imprisoned or otherwise detained by the government is being lawfully held. If it is decided that the person was detained through “due process of law,” then continued detention is permissible either through trial (if it hasn’t occurred) or post conviction. The Magna Carta similarly permitted continued incarceration if the person’s initial detention was by “the law of the land.”

The United States Supreme Court has also identified the Magna Carta as an early source of the “proportionality” analysis associated with the 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Magna Carta prohibited the king from imposing a fine “unless according the measure of the offense.” It further provided that “for a great offense [the defendant] shall be [punished] according to the greatness of the offense.” We now understand that this language was intended to prevent King John from raising and lowering the various fines in the royal courts at whim. The United States Supreme Court, however, found in this concept the prohibition against both state and federal governments from imposing fines and other forms of criminal punishment that are disproportionate to the seriousness of the crime for which the defendant was convicted. Some of you may remember particularly onerous fines or prison terms for a wide variety of motor vehicle offenses and misdemeanors. Challenges to these statutes have invariably raised the 8th Amendment’s proportionality argument and have often prevailed on this point.

Nor is the contemporary significance of the Magna Carta limited to criminal and civil procedure. Early versions of the Magna Carta prohibited the Crown from assessing any military tax (such as “scutage” which I described earlier), “except by the common counsel of [the] realm.” The “common counsel of the realm,” comprised as it was of representatives of English society including clergymen and nobility, was a forerunner of both the English Parliament and, later, of the US Congress.

As it evolved, the common counsel limited the monarch’s and then the government’s power to pass legislation, particularly tax legislation, without popular consent. The existence of this tradition involving tax legislation can be seen in one of our most familiar American sayings: “no taxation without representation.” The representation the Colonists knew and were describing arose from the common counsel which, by the 1770’s, had firmly established its right to be heard on tax legislation, a clear inheritance from the Magna Carta. The hated Stamp Act, passed by Parliament without any participation by the people who would be required to pay it, was opposed at the time as an illegal attempt to raise revenue in violation of the Magna Carta. Indeed, the Magna Carta was much in the mind of the colonists, some of whom contended that “the assembly of barons at Runnymede, when Magna Carta was signed [sic],” was the precedent for the convening of the Continental Congress.

What began as a peace treaty between a despotic King and his angry Barons became a lasting symbol of a written contract between the governed and their government, a contract that even included the right of rebellion when that government ruled without popular consent. The ideas in it endured and were expanded, restated and written into law governing generations of Englishmen, their colonists and, ultimately, countries around the world.

No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor.
Theodore Roosevelt

Over time, the Magna Carta also came to represent the “rule of law” which, at its core, is an idea that all governments are bound by law. This distinction between a government which governs according to law and one which governs according to the will of a sovereign did not begin with the Magna Carta but certainly found its roots in the notion that no government official, not even one who claimed to rule by divine right and asserting absolute power, is above the law. This was truly revolutionary in 1215 and, as we have seen in the events around the world of the past few months, revolutionary even today.

Finally the Magna Carta has come to symbolize equality under the law. Certainly the Barons who met King John at Runnymede were a privileged class of male, often hereditary, landowners. But the Magna Carta also contained some protections for women, like the right to refuse to marry and the protection of a widow’s dower interest in one third of her husband’s property. It also, given the times and privileged class who authorized and authored the document, contained some provisions that seemingly applied to every person in the realm, whether “free” or not. For example, “no one” could be compelled to perform service for a knight’s fee. Even more importantly was the clause which provided that “justice” will be sold to “no one.” On the literal level, we can understand that this prohibition arose in response to the abuses of the royal justice system. But as the words have come down to us some 800 years later, we understand the fundamental legal principle that everyone, rich and poor, man or woman, regardless of color or ethnicity must be treated the same under law. It is this principle which found its expression in the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution and which, as interpreted by the highest court in our land, invalidates laws that discriminate or have discriminated on the basis of race, gender, national origin or religion. It is the most American of guarantees and one which still illuminates our imperfect path to the promise of America.

A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.
Dwight Eisenhower

We can trace the profound and important Magna Carta tradition back to the Runnymede meadow nearly 800 years ago when a group of courageous Barons engaged in a revolutionary act that would resonate through the ages. It is worth remembering how much we owe to this now ancient manuscript and the ideas it represents. But we must also remember that this gift is not irrevocable and must protected and nutured in each generation. The rule of law is what separates us from every other form of government since the beginning of time and our inability or failure to recognize that is, in my view, is perhaps the biggest threat to our way of life.

On June 15, 2015, we will return again to the Runnymede meadows to recall this remarkable story. We will recognize our debt to the Barons who decided that they had had enough. Most of all, however, we will celebrate the power of the ideas that endure here and on the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Benghazi and elsewhere as students, lawyers, workers, families, soldiers and shopkeepers call for the rule of law. What a powerful and wonderful idea!

Thank you for the opportunity this has given me, a lawyer, to reflect on all we have inherited from this timeless document.

Alice Richmond
Deputy Chairman
Magna Carta 800th Anniversary 2015 Committee

October 6, 2011

Magna Carta And The Pillars Of Democracy In England

The Magna Carta was a document that marked one of the first instances of democratic change in England’s history. For most of history, the nation has existed under monarchical rule. Often foreign imaginings of England are incorporated with idealised images of quaint country settings, courtiers, dukes and kings. Whilst there is some gravity in these beliefs, it certainly serves to only represent a small vain of the country’s history.

These notions lend themselves to the fantastical, and indeed, the majority of modern day conceptions of fantasy have their origins deeply rooted in English cultural tradition. It is furthered by the global appeal of Shakespeare, plays that depict the lives of kings and members of the aristocracy. Behind the scenes of all this bliss, however, remained the austere face of the country’s social and political condition. The feudal system saw England’s peasantry subjugated by the land-owners. They were not able to own land, but were able to make their living by working the land of another. This was not exclusive to England; similar hegemonic rule could be seen across the rest of the world.

However, when discussing the pillars that formed democracy in England, it is essential to illustrate where the issues existed – and for what reason change was brought about. The Magna Carta represents the beginning of such change. It was a document issued in 1215 to King John. It ordained that no freeman could be punished except through the law of the land. In this sense, it attempted to impose limits on the King’s power – a tenuous, though unmistakable beginning to the principles of democracy.

This legislation did not affect the serfs (i.e. those that were bound to work the land, representing a form of slavery in the feudal system). In hindsight, the document served more as a symbol to the people that change was possible, in addition to a warning of what was yet to come. The document was presented by the some of the King’s closest subjects. It carried profound implications, and its impact can be seen within England today and the events of the following centuries.

Yet whilst the document did a lot to incite the beginnings of change, it did not serve to catalyse any significant rebellions, actions or even permanent changes. Arguably, however, it did enough to trickle the first stones of an avalanche – influencing a series of events that over the next 500 years would result in drastic political and social changes.

It is often said that democracy is built upon certain essential pillars. Whilst it would be hard to say the Magna Carta served as one of these pillars in England, it is certainly evident in the forming of their foundations.



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