Under the influence: 800 years of the Magna Carta

It settled a dispute between the king and the one-percenters 800 years ago—and remains critically important today

Larry Downing/Reuters

Larry Downing/Reuters

The Durham Cathedral 1225 version of the Magna Carta will come to Canada in 2015, beginning at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa on June 11, before going to Winnipeg, Toronto and Edmonton. For more information, go to

In late 1215 or 1216, one of the monks at the socially upscale Cistercian Abbey of Melrose in the Scottish Borders wrote a poem about the astonishing events that had just taken place in the kingdom to the south. “A new state of things begun in England,” it begins, “such a strange affair as had never been heard; for the body wishes to rule the head, and the people desire to be masters over the king.” For David Carpenter, a professor of medieval history at King’s College, London, the Melrose chronicle is a key piece of evidence that contemporaries realized the revolutionary nature of the Magna Carta, the “Great Charter” recording the agreement reached between King John and his rebellious barons on June 15, 1215.

The deal’s primary aim, acknowledges Carpenter, who provided the annotation for the forthcoming reissue of the Penguin Classics edition of Magna Carta, may have been to settle a dispute dividing the realm’s one-percenters. “But in the course of doing so, it set down for the first time overarching principles, the most important being that the king too is bound by the law.” That’s why Magna Carta was celebrated at the time, Carpenter adds, and why, with its 800th anniversary set for next year, “it remains revered.”

John, one of the most despised monarchs in English history—albeit more for being a failure in his wars than for being the sort of tyrant who infamously enjoyed hangings as after-dinner entertainment—was involved in violent conflict with important forces in his realm, including the Church. The same issues were at play across Europe, where kings sought to tap into new sources of wealth in a rapidly urbanizing Christendom. Like John’s French contemporary, King Philip Augustus, they often utilized the-will-of-the-prince-is-the-law principles of Roman law to trample over customary rights, and used the revenue for mercenaries that further helped them control even their mightiest subjects.

But John was up against a more tenacious barrier in early English common law; moreover, he lost his war and the possession of Normandy to Philip. Fatally weakened, the king was brought to bay at the meadow of Runnymede in the spring of 1215 by a coalition of unhappy subjects, including Welshmen and Scots. (The presence of the latter explains the inside knowledge displayed by the Melrose monk, Carpenter notes, as well as the fact the Magna Carta is “in its way, a British document.”)

In several days of hard bargaining, John and his barons settled numerous practical grievances: the king would remove fish weirs from the Thames; he could continue marrying off heiresses, but agreed they would no longer be wed to social inferiors; he agreed to fire all his foreign mercenaries and expel them from England; he would not levy extraordinary taxes without the consent of the greater lords. But by mid-charter, the parties arrived at two clauses, 39 and 40, which remain on the United Kingdom’s statute books and at the heart of the legal and constitutional basis of all the Anglosphere’s common law nations.

“No free man,” reads 39—which notably does not reserve this right for the high-born alone—shall be seized or dispossessed by the Crown, “except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” Article 40 is shorter, sharper and very much to the point: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay, right or justice.” These are clauses directly connected to the latter developments of habeus corpus (“you have the body”)—the demand that the authorities must show cause for imprisoning anyone—and the right to a jury of one’s peers. They were seized on in the century following the Great Charter, Carpenter says, and continually reissued, eventually in phrases still familiar today, “due process of law,” for one.

A victim of its own success, the Magna Carta thus faded from English consciousness before returning, with a vengeance, in the 17th century. Opponents of another overreaching monarchy, the Stuart kings James I and Charles I, seized on the Great Charter as the anchor of the “ancient constitution” they perceived in the kingdom’s dim past. Puritan colonists brought that contemporary concept with them to the New World, where the Magna Carta, despite being of no legal effect in the United States, has been cited in over 150 Supreme Court decisions as a “symbolic” and inspirational document, Chief Justice John Roberts recently remarked, including one of his own. Paul Revere, Roberts added, created a seal during the American Revolution depicting “a militiaman with a sword in one hand and a copy of the Magna Carta in the other.”

In Canada too, where a stone from Runnymede Meadow was laid as the cornerstone of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, the Great Charter still resonates on the eve of its 800th birthday. Supreme Court references to a document without legal effect abound, most recently in a 2000 case where Justice Louis LeBel cited article 40 to reinforce the notion “that justice delayed is justice denied reaches back to the mists of time.” Retired Speaker of the Senate Noel Kinsella notes how the Magna Carta was a precursor not just to legal systems but to human rights milestones like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No single document has had such a profound influence on the establishment of constitutional and human rights instruments around the world.”

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.