Magna Carta

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June 15th 1215: Magna Carta sealed

On this day in 1215, King John of England put his ‘Great Seal’ on the Magna Carta (‘The Great Charter’) at Runnymede. The charter required the King to respect the liberties of the barons and, crucially, stated that everybody, even the king, is subject to the law. The Magna Carta was the result of political crisis, as the feudal barons had rebelled against the king - even capturing London - and forced him to accept the charter to ensure their privileges and curtail royal power. However, the charter’s declaration of equality before the law and right to a fair trial makes it a vital piece of the history of British democracy.  It was certainly limited, as its famous provisions securing legal rights of ‘free men’ would only have applied to an elite few. The Magna Carta also failed to cease hostilities between King John and the barons, as John’s reluctance to implement the charter led to civil war between the groups. The charter was largely rewritten by various monarchs through the years, though some of the original clauses remain law today, making it a key part of Britain’s uncodified constitution. Despite its limitations, the Magna Carta remains a crucial piece of British history, marking a defence against tyrannical power and assurance of individual liberties.

800 years ago today

In a skirmish with one of these advance guards, the Hapsburg troops captured a Mongol officer, who, to the surprise and consternation of the Christians, turned out to be a middle-aged literate Englishman who had made his way through the Holy Land, where he seemed to have developed a talent for learning languages and transcribing them. There is some speculation that with his level of education and his flight from England, he may have been involved in the effort to force King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. After fleeing England and facing excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, he ended up in the service of the more tolerant Mongols. The presence of a European, and a former Christian, among the Mongol army made it clear that the Mongols really were humans and not a horde of demons, but the terrified Christians killed the English apostate before they could get a good accounting of the Mongols’ mysterious mission outside Vienna
—  “The Discovery and Conquest of Europe.” From Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by J. Weatherford.
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Magna Carta

Eight hundred years ago on June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymede, King John of England affixed his seal to Magna Carta. Confronted by 40 rebellious barons, he consented to their demands in order to avert civil war. 

Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. It is concerned with many practical matters and specific grievances relevant to the feudal system under which they lived. The interests of the common man were hardly apparent in the minds of the men who brokered the agreement.  It also failed to resolve the conflict between King John and his barons, and was reissued several times after his death.  But principles expressed in Magna Carta resonate to this day.

During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The document, written on parchment in 1297 with iron gall ink, is one of four surviving 1297 versions of Magna Carta in the world today and is on display at the National Archives, courtesy of philanthropist David M. Rubenstein.