Leaders celebrate 800th anniversary of Magna Carta

Queen leads celebrations of 800th anniversary of signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede in Surrey

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Queen Elizabeth has visited to the site where 800 years ago today one of her predecessors signed the Magna Carta. 

The Queen was also joined by the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Anne, Prince William,  Prime Minister David Cameron and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who are all at Runnymede for the 800th anniversary of the signing the Magna Carta. 

The Duke of Cambridge launched the celebrations by unveiling “The Jurors.” The Jurors is an artwork which symbolises one of the Magna Carta's most important clauses.

Prime Minister Cameron said the Magna Carta went on to change the world.

He added that the Magna Carta altered forever “the balance of power between the governed and the government."

Cameron also said the document has inspired different generations and countries across the world. 

"Why do people set such store by Magna Carta? Because they look to history. They see how the great charter shaped the world, for the best part of a millennium, helping to promote arguments for justice and for freedom," he said.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the document "set the bar high for all of us today."

What is the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta is an English document considered as containing the germ of the idea that no-one is above the law. It forms part of the foundation of many modern political philosophies and legal systems. 

It was hand-written in Latin on sheepskin and is around 3,500 words long. The four copies of the document were written by different people, which can be seen by the mistakes made by their transcribers.

What does Magna Carta mean?

It means "Great Charter" in Latin, the language the document is written in.

When and where was the Magna Carta created?

Magna Carta was first drawn up by King John of England in June 1215 at Runnymede, about 32 km (20 miles) west of London near the River Thames in Surrey. 

How many of the original documents survive?

King John sent copies of the first Magna Carta across the kingdom of England. Although nobody is sure how many copies were made in the past, it is assumed that they were 13 copies produced. Today only four survive - one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Library.

Why was Magna Carta written?

Magna Carta was originally signed as part of a peace treaty between King John and his barons. The barons had captured London and King John found himself in a political crisis. As a solution the King agreed to put limits on the power of the crown for the first time, which laid the foundation for modern freedoms.

Did Magna Carta help create peace?

Although John agreed to the Magna Carta at first, he did not like it when its terms were forced upon him. He wrote to the Pope to have it annulled. The Pope agreed with King John and said the Magna Carta was "illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people." He then declared Magna Carta "null and void of all validity for ever."

A civil war broke out between King John and his barons following the voiding of the Magna Carta. The civil war ended following King John's death in 1216.

Did King John ever ‘signed’ Magna Carta?

King john never signed Magna Carta in the way we use the word since back in the Middle Ages kings never put their name to documents to pass them into law. Instead, John used his Great Seal to authenticate the document. 

Why did King John’s son Henry III reissue Magna Carta?

Henry III came to the throne aged 9 and the advisers around the young king issued a new version of Magna Carta to try to win back the the barons' support. When Henry III reached 18 years of age reissued a revised version in his own name in 1225.

How much of the Magna Carta is relevant today?

The original Magna Carta had 63 clauses. A third of the text was either cut or rewritten for the 1225 version by Henry III.

Today, only three of the original 63 clauses remain on the statute books. One of these three survivors 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.

The other 60 clauses have been dropped because many were very specific to the circumstances of the Middle Ages.

The Magna Carta influenced the American Bill of Rights written in 1791.

More recently, the basic principles of the Magna Carta can be seen in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 put into effect immediately after the Second World War.

What does the clause about justice and a fair trial say?

The actual text, which was translated into modern English, says, "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," which means the law belongs to everyone, not only the powerful. Everybody, including the king, became subject to the law.

What is happening to mark the anniversary?

The 800th anniversary celebrations of the Magna Carta have been ongoing on for months but their climax is on June 14 and 15. 

On June 15 in Runnymede, a statue of the Queen will be unveiled while boats float along the Thames to the historic site. The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Cambridge, the Princess Royal and Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence will visit the meadow.

TRTWorld and agencies