Magna Carta turned 800 this week, and most people know it as the document that played a huge part in shaping our contemporary legal and democratic structures. But how much do you know about how it came about and what it actually says?

Let’s start with the basics. What is Magna Carta?

Magna Carta (meaning ‘The Great Charter’ in Latin – direct and to the point, although they were originally referring to its length, not its significance) was created as a peace treaty to address grievances from barons who felt that King John was abusing his power, grievances that were causing unrest and threatening the King’s reign. It was the first document to formally state that every free man in the kingdom, the crown and court included, was subject to the law and its consequences.

In other words, the law was no longer something that was decided by the guy with the most money or the biggest army: there was now a law of the land.

Why is it important today?

Most of Magna Carta deals with very specific historical issues that have no bearing on our contemporary legal system. Clauses include such oddities as the prohibition of “evil customs” relating to forests, warrens or river-banks, and a section preventing a woman from testifying in murder trials unless the victim was her husband.

But buried deep amongst all the now-repealed feudal legislation are a few lines that have gone on to form the cornerstone of modern legal principles, from the British legal system to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

You’ll hear that language echoed in the United States Bill of Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to name just a few, and it’s the language that has established our modern rights to trial by jury and individual liberty.

Did Magna Carta bring peace between King John and the barons as intended?

In a word: no. King John requested that the Pope overturn Magna Carta almost immediately upon its instatement, and by September of 1215, he was literally at war with the rebel barons whom Magna Carta was supposed to placate. As a peace treaty, it was a complete failure.

When Henry III came to the throne however, the dissolved document was resurrected and revised, and when the young King turned 18 (he came to the throne at a tender 9 years old), a version of Magna Carta was freely issued and held both the crown and its subjects accountable in return for a fairer tax system.

Key pub quiz facts

When was Magna Carta originally ratified?
15 June 1215

Where was it signed?
Runnymede, on the banks of the River Thames. Although in actual fact, Magna Carta was never signed at all, but ratified with the King’s wax seal.

Where can I see Magna Carta?
There are four surviving copies of the original 1215 version: two copies held at the British Library, one at Salisbury Cathedral and one at Lincoln Cathedral.

Who does Magna Carta protect?
The various charters refer to the rights of ‘free men’, although at the time, this had a rather limited definition. Most people were considered unfree and had to submit to the laws set down by local lords.

What did Oliver Cromwell call Magna Carta?
Cromwell was no fan of anything that limited his power once he became Lord Protector. His dismissive attitude extended to him using the rather juvenile moniker ‘Magna Farta’.


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