1215 The Year of Magna Carta

Magna Carta: the things you didn't know
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The celebrations begin this year on February 3. For one day, the only four known copies of Magna Carta will be brought together for the first time, at the British Library, where they will be seen by the 1, people who have won their tickets in a public ballot.

There will be plenty more Magna Carta pageantry during the rest of the year, including an exhibition, also at the British Library, a royal visit to Runnymede on the anniversary itself and many other smaller events in towns across the UK — Lincoln, Bury St Edmunds, Salisbury and more — who claim a historic connection with the Great Charter. But what exactly is Magna Carta? Why was it granted? Does it really speak to the principles of democracy, liberty and human rights with which it is so often associated?

And what is the purpose of the charter — if it has one — today? All of these questions are of critical importance as we celebrate eight centuries of Magna Carta, and look towards a ninth. Magna Carta was a failed peace treaty. It was produced during a civil war between John and a coalition of his barons, known by various titles, including The Army of God and The Northerners.

The issues between these two groups were many and various — which is why Magna Carta is 4, words long and is now usually divided into 63 clauses.

During the combined reigns of these first three Plantagenets, English government experienced deep changes. The power and wealth of the crown increased dramatically, particularly in relation to the power of the English barons. For many people this had been quite good. Royal justice was more available than at any time before.

It was easier to protect your land. By 12th-century standards, the realm had been peaceful, with only one major outbreak of civil war, in Until the Plantagenets ruled about a third of modern France, which meant that Henry II and Richard I were effectively absentees from their kingdom — so they tended not to interfere with baronial business. Not everyone, however, was happy.

The costs of defending a Plantagenet empire reaching from Scotland to the Pyrenees meant that English government was set up to extract money from the realm as efficiently as possible. This meant regular and high taxes. But the distinction showed how subject women were to men. Women took no oath of allegiance to the king because in theory they were always under the protection of a man — father, husband or lord.

In itself both John and his enemies would have been astonished had they known that the Charter would live on and be celebrated years hence. Especially as within a few months of its promulgation, Magna Carta seemed a dead letter. John had got the pope to quash it. The magnificent papal bull in which he did so is a star exhibit in the British Library exhibition.

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  • King John puts his seal on the Magna Carta.

The barons, likewise abandoning the Charter, deposed John and elected another king in his place, none other than Prince Louis, the eldest son of the king of France. In order to win the war against Louis, and, having won the war, consolidate the peace, they issued new versions of the Charter. Then, in , in order to secure a great tax, they issued what became the final and definitive Magna Carta.

What is the Magna Carta?

The name Magna Carta itself had only appeared in to distinguish the Great Charter from the smaller Charter dealing with the royal forest which Henry III issued alongside it. That, however, was fair enough for in its essence and in much of its detail the Charter of replicated that of In Magna Carta was an elitist document, yet by the end of the 13th century it had become known across society, and all sections of society, legitimately or not, were laying claim to its benefits. The originals issued between and , and subsequent confirmations, spawned numerous copies, thanks in large part to the activities of the church whose liberty was protected in chapter one.

Such was the thirst for knowledge of the Charter that many of the copies were of unofficial versions derived from drafts made at Runnymede. Already in itself the Charter had been translated from Latin into French, the vernacular language of the nobility. By the end of the 13th century the Charter was being proclaimed in English, the language of everyone else. The Charter seemed increasingly to have a universal application. It had established the base from which it would go around the world. Its appeal lay not in its precise details, but in its assertion of the rule of law.

Everything is of its own time, but only some ideas are taken up and spread.


When human rights are still trampled on in many parts of the world, what happened in a meadow by the Thames years ago retains its significance. Let us hope Magna Carta will still be celebrated years from now. Facebook Twitter Pinterest. Topics Essays.

Origin of the Magna Carta

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Order by newest oldest recommendations. Show 25 25 50 All. Whilst an uprising of this type was not unusual, unlike previous rebellions the barons did not have a clear successor in mind to claim the throne.

This significant moment, the first time a ruling monarch had been forcibly persuaded to renounce a great deal of his authority, took place at Runnymede, a meadow on the banks of the River Thames near Windsor on 15th June. For their part, the barons renewed their oaths of allegiance to the king on 19th June The formal document which was drafted by the Royal Chancery as a record of this agreement on 15th July was to become known retrospectively as the first version of the Magna Carta.

Whilst both the king and the barons had agreed to the Magna Carta as a means of reconciliation, there was still huge distrust on both sides.

The barons had really wanted to overthrow John and see a new monarch take the throne. For his part, John reneged on the most crucial section of the document, now known as Clause 61, as soon as the barons left London.