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Magna Carta, 800th anniversary this week

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department435px-Pictures_of_English_History_Plate_XXIV_-_King_John_and_Magna_Carta

We may remember the phrase Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter) from our history books, but probably few remember what it was actually about. King John was surrounded by an army of rebellious lords in the fields of Runnymede on June 15, 1215, (actually they were blocking his re-entry into London.) They forced him to agree as king and put his seal on this “great charter” to bring peace to the land. Truly, it was a way to agree to peace, so he could keep his throne. Strangely enough, he never really signed it; he died a year later in 1216. His son, Henry III, in 1225, issued a new, slimmed down version of this “great charter”, in return for the support of the barons in 1225. (Again, the barons!) Later, in 1265, he trimmed the charter down again and it to establish the first Parliament (or parlement, in French, based on the word discuss.) (If you missed the google doodle created for this anniversary, it’s cute.)

The original Magna Carta had 63 clauses. A third of this text was either cut or rewritten for the 1225 version. Today, only three of the original 63 clauses remain on the statute books. Of these three survivors one defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third gives all English subjects the right to justice and a fair trial. This is the big one that made such an impact on English law, and therefore American law.

Here is the translation: 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. (This means that for the first time in British history, and possibly world history, no one was above the law—not even the king!)Sothebys-Magna-Carta-1024x691

  • The right to due process (Habeas Corpus) allowed free men (not serfs, slaves or women) to be judged and if needed punished by a jury of their peers.
  • Justice could not delayed, bought or sold.
  • All fines had to be reasonable, so no free man would lose everything paying a fine.
  • Sheriffs could not take your property (presumably while you are in jail)

But that happened in England. What influence does the Magna Carta have for us, citizens of the United States of America?? Many of the founding fathers had studied English law and knew of this charter, and how it had limited the rights of the king. Since we were rebelling against the British government and the king, they wanted to use it as part of the foundation of their new nation – the United States of America. Many historians believe the founding fathers also used these statements, or at least Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did, in the writing of the Constitution as well. In 1976, for the bicentennial, Britain loaned one of the four surviving original copies to the United States for display at the Capitol. We did return the original, but kept a copy, which is still on display there.

after Unknown artist, etching, late 18th to early 19th century

after Unknown artist, etching, late 18th to early 19th century

So what started out as a peace deal between King John and the rich rebellious barons (who were angry at being overtaxed) became, in time, a foundation of one of our basics rights as put forth in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Read the rest of this entry

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