Look hard enough and every year can be made the anniversary of something. Jubilees and centenaries abound, often only to serve as a hook on which to hang a promotion or sales campaign. But in 2015 we have something truly meaningful and relevant to commemorate.
In June of 2015, 800 years ago, the deeply unpopular King John of England was forced by his Barons to sign a document spelling out their rights and sealing his commitment to protect them. It was the first written expression of such rights and the first acknowledgement that even the King had to observe them. It was rightly called the “Great Charter”, or in Latin, Magna Carta.
Written in abbreviated Medieval Latin, it is an expression of some remarkably progressive ideas. Consider clause 39: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions…except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land” – a principle now known as Habeus Corpus, and enshrined in the legal systems of the UK, the USA and many other countries. Some provisions are less exalted: Clause 33 reads “All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames…”, though this too was intended to curtail the tendencies of feudal overlords to appropriate for themselves almost everything they thought they could get away with.
We have to remember that once he had signed Magna Carta, King John proceeded to ignore almost every provision in it, and even persuaded Pope Innocent III to annul it. John’s repudiation was short-lived however, as he died in 1216. Magna Carta proved more durable: it was revived and re-issued by future kings seeking to pacify a rebellious nobility. There is no doubt it has had an enduring influence on law and politics in the English-speaking world, and has often been cited by those trying to control the arbitrary power of despots, including American revolutionaries fighting against King George III. In recognition of its central role in the US legal system, the American Bar Association erected a monument (above) at Runnymede, near Windsor, where the original was signed.
There are four extant copies of the 2015 Magna Carta, of which two are in the British Library and one each in Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Castle. To celebrate its 800th birthday, the British Library will collect all four and display them together for the first time in history at a special exhibition.