The Magna Carta at 800

Extant copy of the 1215 Magna Carta
One of the copies held in the British Library (Wikimedia). The other two are at the cathedrals of Salisbury and Lincoln.

Eight centuries ago today King John of England sealed the Great Charter (in Latin, Magna Carta) with his rebellious barons. Often seen as the cornerstone of the British constitution, the Magna Carta has also been a popular touchpoint for American political thinkers going back to the Revolution. Learn more from the British Library, repository of two of the four surviving copies of the 1215 charter.

There’s been much pomp and circumstance surrounding the anniversary, with Queen Elizabeth II, British prime minister David Cameron, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch among the leaders celebrating at Runnymede this morning. Cameron emphasized that King John’s charter altered “forever the balance of power between the governed and government,” and Lynch said, “While the hands that wrote Magna Carta have long been stilled, the principles they carved out of the struggles of their day and the struggles of the human condition live on.” Yesterday seven hundred people joined the bishop of Salisbury in a 4-kilometer “pilgrimage” following the route by which the document was originally taken in 1215.

And, of course, Google created another of its signature “doodles.”

Google Doodle of the Magna Carta

A sampling of other responses:

• British legal scholar John Stanton explained that the way “rule of law” is implemented has changed greatly since 1215 (only three of the original 63 clauses haven’t been repealed), yet “The core values set out by the Magna Carta… due legal process over arbitrary power and the freedom to act within a system guided by legal — are still very much at the heart of our constitution, even if that system has evolved and changed beyond all recognition.”

King John
King John (r. 1199-1216) – Wikimedia

• The Independent used the anniversary to kick off a new series on the UK Constitution, underscoring how the Magna Carta solidified two basic principles: “…that regal authority should be limited by – and separated from – the will of the people…. that individuals were entitled to be treated in accordance with the laws of the land and would, when accused of wrongdoing, be judged by their equals.”

• Lots of contemporary political thinkers — particularly on the right — tried to appropriate the Magna Carta for their own purposes, from libertarians to Tory euroskeptics.

• And in a year that also marks the 25th anniversary of the worldwide web, the British Library announced the results of a project to identify the clauses of a “digital Magna Carta.” The most popular clause among the 30,000 who voted: “The Web we want will not let companies pay to control it, and not let governments restrict our right to information.”

• Then again, as international law scholar Tom Ginsburg observed, “Magna Carta has everything going for it to be venerated in the United States: It is old, it is English and, because no one has actually read the text, it is easy to invoke to fit current needs.”

• Another scholar who think the importance of the Magna Carta has been overblown or misunderstood is historian Jill Lepore, writing earlier this year in The New Yorker: “Much has been written of the rule of law, less of the rule of history. Magna Carta, an agreement between the King and his barons, was also meant to bind the past to the present, though perhaps not in quite the way it’s turned out. That’s how history always turns out: not the way it was meant to.”

• Oh, and it might not have been June 15th after all.


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