It’s regarded as one of the seminal documents of medieval England. First issued 15th June, 1215, the Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) was endorsed by England’s barons and King John at Runnymede near Windsor Castle and put limits in the power of the king by demanding he govern according to established feudal law.
The document was forced upon King John by rebellious barons after he broke away from established customs and imposed oppressive taxes and fines and seized the estates of nobles.
Its terms were immediately repudiated by the king, leading to further rebellion which ended when the king died on 18th October, 1216. Less than a month after the king’s death, the regent, William Marshal, issued a revised version of the document and a second revision almost exactly a year later. A further version was later issued by King Henry III and later confirmed by King Edward I.
Copies of the document were sent throughout the land in 1215. There is now a copy in the Lincoln Cathedral Archives and another in Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House while the British Library has two copies, both from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. One of the library’s two copies was burned in a fire 100 years after Sir Robert’s death and still bears fire damage.
The text of the Magna Carta is not abstract in nature but deals in detail with practical realities, covering issues ranging from what happens when a noble who holds land from the Crown dies through to who heirs may marry, standard measures of wine, ale and corn and the removal of foreign knights from the country.
Only three of the Magna Carta’s 63 clauses are still law: one guaranteeing the liberties of the English Church; another confirming the privileges of London and other towns; and a third, often viewed as a forerunner of clauses contained in documents such as American Bill of Rights and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that no free man shall be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed or exiled without the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
The legacy of the Magna Carta is not however in the individual rights it seeks to uphold but rather the principle that for the first time in English history, it elevates the law above all men, even the king.
WHERE: Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library: Magna Carta and associated documents, The British Library, 96 Euston Road (nearest tube station is Kings Cross St Pancras or Euston); WHEN: 9.30am to 6pm Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; closes 8pm Tuesday and 5pm Saturday; 11am to 5pm Sunday; COST: Entry is free; WEBSITE: www.bl.uk or for a detailed guide and virtual tour of the Magna Carta, see www.bl.uk/treasures/magnacarta/index.html.