The Magna Carta Celebrates its Eight Hundredth Birthday

Marlane Chill Dove

Article by Marlane Chill Dove Featured Author


On June 15, 1215, at Runnymede — in a meadow by the Thames near Windsor Castle, King John I of England affixed his royal seal to Magna Carta (The Great Charter). This venue was chosen because the land was such a bog that neither the King nor the barons would be able to bring their armies. Although the language of the King and the barons was French and the illiterate peasants spoke English, Magna Carta is written in Latin on parchment. Four copies of the 1215 document exist — two are in the British Library, one at Salisbury Cathedral and one at Lincoln Cathedral.

English historians have not been kind to King John I. The youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and the brother of the much-loved Richard the Lion-Hearted, he is considered to be one of England's worst kings. It is noteworthy that no subsequent English king has taken the name, "John." He certainly suffered by comparison to his older brother. Richard I (1189-1199) spent only six months of his ten-year rule in England; early in his reign, he led the Third Crusade in an attempt to recapture Jerusalem from Moslem occupation. Richard I spent the last half of his monarchy winning back the parts of France (formerly held by the English) which had been lost to Philip, the French king. By the time he died in 1199 (shot with a cross-bow at a battle near Limoges), he had succeeded in recovering all of the lost French territory for England.

John I ascended to the English throne upon the death of his brother Richard in 1199. Lacking his brother's military prowess, he lost many more battles than he won — by 1207, Anjou, Aquitaine, Normandy, Maine, Touraine, Brittany and Poitou were all lost. John I levied steep taxes against the barons to finance his re-conquest of France. When the nobles would not pay, he imprisoned their sons. The loss of his French possessions was a tremendous blow to the prestige of John I, and, importantly, it meant that from that time forward, he became solely an English king.

John I battled with Pope Innocent III over the Pope's appointment of Stephen Langton, a scholar and theologian to the Archbishopric of Canterbury–the Pope excommunicated John I in 1207 (John I was the first English monarch to receive this punishment; later Popes excommunicated Henry VIII and Elizabeth I). John I struck back by taxing the Church and seizing Church property. Langton remained in exile in France until 1213, when John I, facing an invasion by the French and an uprising in Wales, decided to accept Langton's appointment and, hopefully, win the Pope's favor and support. On May 17, 1215, the barons, in a state of open rebellion against the King's tyrannical rule, supported by the citizenry, captured the city of London. When John I realized the strength of his opposition, he agreed to meet with the barons in order to negotiate a peace.

Early in 1215, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the barons led by Robert Fitzwalter met at St. Albans Abbey (twenty miles north of London) and drafted the Articles of the Barons. John I arrived at Runnymede on June 10, 1215. After negotiations with the barons and with his back against the wall, John I agreed to affix his royal seal on June 15, 1215, to the document that then became known as Magna Carta.

Magna Carta stands for the principle that no one is above the law–even the King. At Runnymede, the barons presented King John I with a list of demands–in large part they were abuses by the King of his powers as a feudal lord. The barons' primary objective was to make the King observe his side of the feudal contract. Historically, the most important sections are:

Article 29: "No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned … save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."

Article 38: "In future no official shall put any one to trial merely on his own testimony, without reliable witnesses produced for this purpose."

Article 39: "No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold or outlawed or banished or in any way ruined, nor will we take or order action against him except by the lawful judgment of his equals and according to the law of the land."

Article 40: "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice."

Under the terms of Magna Carta, John I granted "to all free men of our kingdom and their heirs in perpetuity written liberties to be held by them and their heirs." In England in 1215, a "free man" was a nobleman.

John I regarded the agreement made at Runnymede merely as a means of buying time. In July, 1215, he appealed to the Pope to annul Magna Carta; in a papal bull issued in August, 1215, it was declared "null and void of all validity forever." The charter was amended in 1217 and, cut by one-third in its 1225 amendment. Subsequent monarchs confirmed Magna Carta nearly fifty times, but only because they knew that there was no mechanism for enforcement; it was rarely honored. By the time it was first printed in 1534, Magna Carta was little more than a curiosity.

What is the importance of Magna Carta? Did it make a difference? The answer is that, historically, it has been viewed as being of greater importance and more of an influence on the American legal system than that of Great Britain. The British have no written Constitution and in the 21st century, the monarchy is flourishing. Today, in Great Britain only four of the original sixty-three articles of Magna Carta remain on the statute books: one defends the liberties and rights of the English Church; another confirms the liberties and custom of the City of London and other towns; and the third and fourth give all English subjects the right to justice and a fair trial.

In 17th century England, Sir Edward Coke (jurist, Chief Justice of the King's Bench) is the person most responsible for reviving interest in Magna Carta. Describing it as his country's "ancient constitution," his interpretation of Magna Carta applied the protections guaranteed in the document not only to the nobles, but to all subjects equally. "Magna Carta is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign." As the distinguished American legal scholar Roscoe Pound (dean of the Harvard Law School) pointed out, "American lawyers see Magna Carta through [Edward] Coke's spectacles."

English colonists coming to America in the 17th century brought with them the Common Law system of governance. The Virginia Company and Massachusetts Bay Company that founded the first settlements in America promoted Magna Carta and its stance against arbitrary power as a way of drumming up settlers. By the 1760's colonists were relying on Magna Carta in their opposition to taxes imposed by Parliament. Thomas Paine in "Common Sense" urged Americans to write their own Magna Carta. However, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Magna Carta was barely mentioned - the United States had no king that needed restraining. In 1789, the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) drafted by James Madison was adopted; of the twenty-seven provisions contained therein, only four, primarily concerning due process, can be traced to Magna Carta.

Notwithstanding, Magna Carta was on its way to becoming an American icon. In 1935, King John I affixing his seal to the charter appeared on the door of the United States Supreme Court Building; during World War II, it served as a symbol of shared values between the United States and Great Britain. The American Bar Association erected a memorial at Runnymede in 1957.

Magna Carta has taken on a significance that King John I and the barons could have never imagined. As Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman observed "It's precisely from the capacity it's had over this 800-year period of functioning as a rallying cry, a symbol, an ideal of the rule law that is important. No other document in world history has been able to function in so many times and places as the epitome of that ideal." Our adulation of Magna Carta comes from what we believe it to have been in hindsight — not what it was in 2015.

On June 15, 2015, Magna Carta's 800th birthday was observed with an extravagant ceremony at Runnymede. Present were 500 American lawyers traveling with the American Bar Association, a host of England's foremost jurists and scholars, the British Prime Minister David Cameron, United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch and–and as a sign of how far monarchs have come since medieval times — Queen Elizabeth II, attending not on sufferance, but of her own free will. The London Symphony Orchestra played a new work by composer John Rutter sung by the Temple Choir (Church of the Knights Templar, the London base of King John I in 1215). And, the American Bar Association rededicated its 1957 memorial led by its president, William C. Hubbard. "The idea that the law comes from the people, and it's not the law of the king, is fundamental. And, there you have it. To think that those principles have survived 800 years gives me great hope for the future."