1. The 'Great Charter'
Just after the Second World War, former First Lady of the USA Eleanor Roosevelt called the new United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘a Magna Carta for all mankind’ – one of many people to draw inspiration from one of the most famous documents in British history.
In truth, Magna Carta – 'the Great Charter' – was a desperate attempt, made 800 years ago, by a violent and hated king – John I of England – to avert civil war.
But what started as a peace treaty has become, over the centuries, the basis and byword for the freedom, justice and democracy enjoyed by billions across the world.
2. Making peace
Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, near Windsor in June 1215. Rebellious nobles and bishops brought their king to the negotiating table and forced him to agree to their specific set of demands.
Dan Jones explores how and why Magna Carta was written.
4. Inside Magna Carta: What it actually says
Despite its continued power today, Magna Carta contains 63 clauses explicitly addressing the concerns of England’s ruling class 800 years ago. Click below to explore some of them and find out whether they have stood the test of time.
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5. A broken peace
The original agreement lasted just six weeks. King John deliberately broke his promise to the rebels and used the Pope to have the charter officially annulled.
Frustrated, the barons turned to John’s enemies in France for help. Threatened by invasion, John fled to Winchester, and when Prince Louis of France arrived in London in May 1216 to claim the crown he met little resistance. Five months later, in October, John died after contracting dysentery. He named his nine-year-old son Henry as his chosen heir on his deathbed.
The King is dead, long live Magna Carta
John’s death did not end the rebellion – though with a new monarch came a new opportunity for change. Advisors to the young King, statesman William Marshal and Guala Bicchierri – the Pope’s new representative in England – drew on the growing influence of Magna Carta to rally support in the growing war against France.
After the French were defeated at Sandwich in Kent, and the rebels at Lincoln, the charter was issued again and formed the basis for the subsequent peace. It was only now, in 1217, that it gained the name Magna Carta – ‘The Great Charter’. So-called in order to separate it from the smaller 'Charter of the Forest', establishing rights to royal forests, issued alongside it.
A permanent charter of liberties
In 1225, Henry III sealed another version of Magna Carta. From then on the King was theoretically subject to the same laws that governed his people. He ruled with their consent, not regardless of it. This potent idea lasted well beyond the 13th Century – inspiring debate and reform for the next 800 years.
Many of the rights which we take for granted today were first enshrined in Magna Carta. Equal treatment under the law and the right to trial by jury all owe their development to the complex origins of the great charter.
Although it was not written with universal liberty in mind, Magna Carta came to inspire many of the basic principles of democracy, laying the foundation for the freedoms we enjoy today.
6. Legacy and inspiration
In the centuries since it was sealed, Magna Carta has provided the inspiration and legal basis for key moments in British and world history.