800 Years of Freedom: Magna Carta

“This will be the year of Magna Carta. It is a year rich in historical anniversaries, including those of the battles of Agincourt (1415) and Waterloo (1815). But it is the commemoration of King John’s great concession at Runnymede on June 15 1215 that should dominate our thoughts, as we consider the profound influence that the Great Charter has had on eight centuries of history in England, Britain and the English-speaking world.

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 4,000 words long and is now usually divided into 63 clauses. The grievances it addressed were not only of John’s making. They reached back at least two generations, into the reigns of John’s father, Henry II, and his brother Richard I, “the Lionheart”.

The most famous clauses of Magna Carta are numbered 39 and 40. “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” And, “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.”

Originally published in Dan Jones’ The Telegraph article in 2 February 2015.

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