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Magna Carta; Inspiration Down the Ages

Glenn Broughton

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede in England and also the 750th anniversary of the first parliament, also in England. This blog tells you some of the history but also asks ‘how are these medieval events from so long ago relevant to our world today?’

Leading up to 1215 English barons had been in dispute with King John and eventually managed to force him to sign Magna Carta, the ‘Great Charter of Liberty’. At the time its consequences were short lived as the king got the Pope to annul it shortly afterwards leading to the First Barons’ War. However John died the next year and the regency government for his 9-year-old son unsuccessfully reissued it in an attempt to pacify the barons. In 1217 it was incorporated in the peace treaty that ended the war and it became enshrined in English law by his son Edward I in 1297.

Of the original sixty-three clauses in the document only three remain extant in English law and these are the ones that we remember and that have had the greatest influence on the world since. They basically concerned the freedom of the Church from state, the foundation of civil liberties and a man’s right to due legal process. "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."

These ideas inspired the French Revolution, the US Declaration of Independence and their Bill of Rights, the fall of the Berlin Wall and most recently even the Arab Spring uprisings. Likewise, England’s parliamentary democracy has been used as a model for governments all around the world.

In a similar way to the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood still resonating with people today, Magna Carta has struck the chord of freedom within people down the centuries and continues to do so. To celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta all four existing original copies of the document from 1215 will be brought together at the British Library in London for three days in February and a more enduring exhibition is being staged there that takes you on a journey from its medieval origins to the modern uses of Magna Carta.

Also on display will be Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten text of the Declaration of Independence, an original copy of the US Bill of Rights, together with other key documents and artefacts. 

To commemorate this landmark anniversary Salisbury Cathedral is creating a new interactive exhibition space within its medieval Chapter House along with the best preserved original Magna Carta. 

Today the Internet and instant worldwide personal communication are emblematic of the fluttering pennants of the twenty-five barons who waited impatiently for their despotic king to round the last bend in the river on a summer’s day in 1215.



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