The Magna Carta is 800 Years Old Today. Here’s Why It Still Matters

Though a document prepared for the benefit of feudal barons, the Charter established some of mankind’s most cherished fundamental rights

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.This image has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.This image has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections

Eight hundred years ago, on 15th June 1215, an erratic and unscrupulous English king authenticated a charter under pressure from his rebellious barons. It was a document guaranteeing political liberties and it came to be known in history as Magna Carta – the Great Charter.

Drafted at Runnymede, the meadow on the banks of the Thames, by the barons, with encouragement from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and approved by King John, it is traditionally regarded as the foundation of British constitutionalism and one of the great landmarks of Western civilisation. Though this thoroughly medieval document reflects the feudal order rather than democracy, it is reverentially remembered for asserting the supremacy of the law over the king.

The charter did not proclaim the rights of the people. Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the leading mediators in the barons’ dispute with the king. Reflecting his influence, the first clause in the charter confirmed that the Church shall be free and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired. Then came the rights of the barons such as protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Arond 250 copies of the document were originally created and sent to legal and religious officials across the country to make sure it was followed. Sheriffs were required to read the charter out aloud in county courts four times a year, the bishops were bidden to anathematize those who failed to observe it, and the barons were enjoined to enforce its provisions through a 25-member council. It was annulled and reissued many times and finally, in 1297, King Edward confirmed it as part of England’s statute. It was called Magna Carta to distinguish it from the smaller Charter of the Forest issued at the same time.

Limits to authority

Despite its explicitly feudal character, the Magna Carta gained public acceptance as a powerful iconic document, establishing rights and checking the abuse of power. It became a potent symbol of political liberty and justice. The political mythology of the Magna Carta persisted after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until well into the 19th century. It influenced the early American colonists and the formation of the American Constitution in 1789. The Americans looked to the Magna Carta as precedent for the development of charters and laws in their new realm. Though it is not part of the present English statute book, it is still considered an important symbol of liberty and the fountainhead of various bills of rights.

Over the centuries, the demands for fair and just treatment of citizens by their respective governments have expanded far beyond the narrow slice of society protected by the Magna Carta. Great strides have been made towards ensuring equality under the law and justice for all. That is why Lord Denning described the charter as the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.

The Magna Carta was written in abbreviated Latin in clear handwriting using quill pens on a parchment scroll. Parchment was expensive, which is why the writing is very small by today’s standards. It was authenticated by the king, who affixed the Great Seal. However, many historians doubt whether King John was actually able to write. There were no signatures and the barons present did not attach their own seals to it. The charter was not numbered or divided into paragraphs or separate clauses at the time. The numbering seen today was made by Sir William Blackstone in 1759.

As a peace treaty between the king and the rebel barons, the charter was chiefly a guarantee of rights for the barons, and gave no attention at all to serfs. It was a practical solution to a political crisis. It contained 63 clauses, embodying provisions for the protection of the rights of feudal proprietors against the abuse of the royal prerogative. Its principal provisions sought to ensure the redress of a number of grievances connected with feudal tenures of land; freedom of elections for the Church; the inviolability of the liberties of the City of London and of other ports and towns; freedom of commerce to foreign merchants; the abolition of extraordinary taxation; and the strict administration of justice. Of these, all but 12 are now obsolete. But implicit in it was the idea that justice depended on the observance of law by all, including the king, and it opened the way to later extensions of freedom. It provided a new framework for the relationship between the king and his subjects.

No taxation without representation

Clause 12 forbade the levy of scutage (money paid by a vassal to his lord in lieu of military service) except by general consent; this would later be interpreted to mean that the king could raise no taxes without the consent of the barons, and still later, without the consent of the commoners in Parliament. Clause 20 declared that a freeman could be fined only according to the measure of his offences. Clause 28 provided that no government official might seize corn or other movable goods without immediate payment; this would appear in the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution as “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation”. Clause 38 said that “no official shall place a man on trial … without producing credible witnesses to the truth” of the accusation. Most famously, Clause 39 provided that no one might be imprisoned or stripped of his rights without being judged by his peers; this would subsequently guarantee trial by jury for everyone.

Two defining acts of English legislation in the 17th century – the Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679) – looked directly back to Clause 39. The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution – ‘Nor shall any person be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law’ – also echoes Clause 39. Clause 40 – ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice’ – also had dramatic implications for future legal systems in Britain and America. Clause 60 declared: ‘Let all men of our kingdom, whether clergy or laymen, observe [these customs and liberties] similarly in their relations with their own men.’

Apart from acquiring a special status as the cornerstone of English liberties, the Magna Carta was effectively the first written constitution in European history and the first document to express the ideas of constitutional government. Some of its core principles are echoed in the United States Bill of Rights (1791) and in many other constitutional documents around the world as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). The charter thus retains enormous symbolic power as an ancient defence against arbitrary and tyrannical rulers, and as a guarantor of individual liberties.

Rulers, be reasonable

The Magna Carta historically conveys the message that all human authority is limited – by the Law of God and the Law of Nature. “In the court of conscience,” Aquinas wrote, “there is no obligation to obey an unjust law”. Legitimacy of political power springs from the people, not from any divine source. However august may be the king’s authority, it is limited and not absolute. That is the lingering message of the charter. Its passage through many tumultuous centuries has transformed that feudal document into a fundamental democratic text.

Despite the presence of words such as scutage and wapentakes, which locate the Great Charter squarely in the feudal era, the spirit of the document speaks to subsequent generations. Its most important contribution is the claim that there is a fundamental set of principles, which even the king must respect. Above all, the Magna Carta makes the case that people, wherever in the world they might be, have a right to expect reasonable conduct from the rulers who govern them.

Sebastian Paul represented Ernakulam as a Member of Parliament in the 11th, 13th and 14th Lok Sabhas