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Magna Carta achieved its 800th anniverary in 2015. It is regarded as one of the most important documents in the world, but why was it created and what is it's meaning today?
Magna Carta means 'Great Charter' and it came into existence in the reign of King John of England (1199 - 1216) and it is essentially a peace treaty between the King and the nobility of England - the barons. John was a very bad king and life in England during his reign was harsh and unjust. He had penchant for waging war with his neighbours and while wars can be expensive he was nonetheless the wealthiest English monarch of all time. The barons were heavily taxed and unpaid taxes could result in imprisonment or death. King John also had a very poor relationship with the church. The Pope consequently issued a decree prohibiting the English poeple from receiving sacraments and from being buried in consecrated ground. He also excommunicated King John.
A crisis point came in 1215. The barons renounced their oath of allegiance to the King, appointed a new leader and captured the City of London and so England was in a state of civil war. John was thus brought to the negotiating table. The opposing sides met on the banks of the River Thames at Runnymede - not far from present-day Heathrow airport. The barons demands were written into a Charter of Liberties which once accepted by the King, became known as Magna Carta. Thus on June 19, 1215, a peace between the Barons and King John was established.
The Kings clerks drew up copies of the agreement for distribution throughout the land. We don't know how many copies were made but there are four of the original version surviving today. There is one in Salisbury Cathedral, one in Lincoln Cathedral and two in the British Library. The charter was authenticated by the Kings Great Seal - it was never 'signed'.
Did the Great Charter usher in a period of peace and prosperity? No, it did not. John appealed to the Pope, not previously an ally, who was alarmed at the 'liberal' content of Magna Carta. He declared it null and void. By September, war had broken out between the opposing sides. King John died on campaign in October 1216 at Newark castle with civil war raging around him. He was succeeded by his infant son, nine year old King Henry III who later modified and re-issued the charter. Magna Carta was enrolled into the English statute book by King Edward I in 1297.
Magna Carta today
What is the relevance of Magna Carta today? Many of the clauses in the Charter pertain to specifics of medieval life under King John and have no meaning in the modern world. Only three remain in English law of which the most reknowned is this:
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.
These core principles are echoed in the United States Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Magna Carta retains enormous symbolic power as a defence against tyrannical rulers and a guarantor of civil liberties.
There are four of the original copies from 1215 in existence, the Salisbury Magna Carta being the best preserved and it is displayed in the cathedral chapter house for visitors to enjoy. A viewing of the Magna Carta is an essential part of a visit to incomparable Salisbury Cathedral, located in the county of Wiltshire and possessing the tallest cathedral spire in the country.
Here is a short video about Magna Carta, created by the talented Terry Jones. The style is a little Pythonesque which adds to the enjoyment!