On June 15th it will be 800 years since a legendary document was signed at Runnymede in close proximity to Windsor. The document has come to continue to have significance throughout the centuries, and in England it can still be brought up in the political debate as a monument over guaranteed rights.
When a debate in 2008 brought up the possibility to prolong the period suspected terrorists could be held without charges being brought against them from 28 days to 44 days, the earlier Member of Parliament for Labour, Tony Benn (dead march 2014) stated that this was the day Magna Carta died.
But what was the background?
Magna Carta was, reluctantly mind you, signed by King John – known to from basically every movie about Robin Hood, from Errol Flynn´s interpretations to Disney´s cartoons to Sir Walter Scott´s Ivanhoe to Kevin Costner in tights.
In every modern depiction he is portrayed as the villain prince who aim to take the throne from his brother, Richard the Lionheart. And that really happened; when Richard was taken prisoner on his way back from the crusades, John did try to seize power.
He wasn´t liked well enough to succeed, but he did manage to cement a genuinely bad reputation that have survived through the centuries. He ascended as a likewise disliked king at the death of his brother Richard in 1199. While historians today are in agreement that he had some talents, there is also an agreement that his many shortcomings as a king dominated, among other what has been described as “repulsive, even dangerous personality traits”; among others malice, pettiness and cruelty. Material for both books and films, in other words,
That he found himself at Runnymede that day in June 800 years ago was a result of a group of Barons whose patience with John´s self-indulgent ways to seize power and funds had come to an end.
Magna Carta was intended as a peace treaty which among other things ensured a more reasonable distribution of power between the upper layers of society, protection for the Barons against unlawful arrests and access to swift justice and limitations to feudal taxes. The Magna Carta is said to have been inspired by the Charter of Liberties signed by Henry II in 1154, which among other things promised that the King wouldn´t plunder Church properties or demand outrageous fees for inheritance or marriage. To make sure the Magna Carta was honoured a council of 25 Barons was put in place, which obviously didn´t help, as no party in the end respected the signed charter, and the conflicts resulted in what is known as the First Baron´s War, a civil war which raged between 1215 and 1217. While John very much was the cause of the conflict, he never saw the end of it, as he died in 1216 from what is believed to have been dysentery.
The mythology surrounding the Magna Carta has lived on well into the 20th century, and the charter is seen as being the ground work of both the British democracy as well as the American constitution and the UN declaration of Human Rights.
The judicial importance however began to diminish already in the 16th century as new laws was founded.
But that was then and this is now. Today four copies of the Magna Carta of 1215 still exist (it was elaborated and changed in 1216 and 1217), all of which are kept in England, but they haven´t been brought together until the first week of February this year. Between February 2nd to 5th they were shown to the public at the British Library after which they were brought to the Parliament, and the public had the opportunity to view them during guided tours for most of the month.
Celebrations will continue throughout the year with lectures, theatre plays, debates and exhibitions. For a calendar over the different events, click here.
The history of Magna Carta is much longer than I have written here, but on the same site as you find the above calendar, you will find much of what you may want to know.
Sources: A Knight at the Movies – Medieval History on Film – John Aberth
The Plantagenets – The Warrior Kings and Queens who made England – Dan Jones
Why Magna Carta? Angevin England Revisited – Natalie Fryde
King John, Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta – Marc Morris