What is the Magna Carta and why is it still so important 800 years on?

  

What is the Magna Carta and why is it still so important 800 years on?

802 years ago today, the Magna Carta was signed by King John at Runnymede. It promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown; and it became one of the most important charters sealed in English history.

"Eight hundred years after it was first agreed beneath the oak trees of Runnymede, by the fertile green banks of the River Thames, Magna Carta is more famous than ever. This is strange. In its surviving forms – and there are four known original charters dating from June 1215 – Magna Carta is something of a muddle. It is a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant king, most of which concern matters of arcane thirteenth-century legal principle. A few of these promises concern themselves with high ideals, but those are few and far between, vague and idealistic statements slipped between longer and more perplexing sentences describing the ‘customary fee’ that a baron ought to pay a king on the occasion of coming into an inheritance, or the protocols for dealing with debt to the Crown, or the regulation of fish-traps along the Thames and the Medway.

For the most part, Magna Carta is dry, technical, difficult to decipher and constitutionally obsolete. Those parts that are still frequently quoted – clauses about the right to justice before one’s peers, the freedom from being unlawfully imprisoned and the freedom of the Church – did not mean in 1215 what we often wish they would mean today. They are part of an agreement drawn up not to defend, in perpetuity, the interests of national citizens, but rather to pin down a king who had been greatly vexing a very small number of wealthy and violent barons. Magna Carta ought to be dead, defunct and only of interest to serious scholars of the thirteenth century. Yet it is very much alive, one of the most hallowed documents in the world, revered from the Arctic Circle to the Antipodes, written into the constitutions of numerous countries, and admired as a foundation stone in the Western traditions of liberty, democracy and the rule of law. How did that happen?”

Dan Jones explains the importance of the sealing of this great charter both today and 800 years ago in his book, Magna Carta.

Dan Hannan discusses the quasi-religious reverence with which the people of the English speaking world regard the Magna Carta, the Great Charter.


If you want to find out more about the Magna Carta, Dan Jones' book, Magna Carta, is available in hardback and ebook