Magna Carta, Battle of Hastings, The Great Fire of London… All events in history which, if you don’t know about, you’ve certainly heard of. But I’m not sure I really understood what the Magna Carta was properly, not for a long time.
One of the jokes bandied around when I was younger was: Where was the Magna Carta signed? On the bottom. And I remember this joke being illustrated in a (later, I’m getting on now…) Horrible History book, with a picture of King John signing the document and leaning on someone’s bottom to do so. With King John, I mostly knew him as a naughty lion King in the Disney adaptation of Robin Hood. Is King John more famous for his dealings with a legendary figure and being the younger brother of a “better king”? Or for Magna Carta?
Now, as I moved from childhood into university, I started to become interested in King John as I think he, as well as Richard III who I have written about before, have had a pretty rough time of it- in history books and in history itself.
King John wasn’t particularly popular, although he inherited a lot of problems which came to surface after his brother died, and this is one of the reasons Magna Carta was drawn up- to attempt to regain peace between King John and the Barons and prevent a civil war breaking out. But why is this such an important event in history, and why are we celebrating it 800 years later?
Magna Carta translates from Latin to ‘Great Charter’- and that is essentially what it was. A charter of rights for the nation, which included human rights such as a person’s right to have a fair trial. Take a few moments to let that sink in and just how ridiculously important that is.
However, there were a number of clauses within the document that the Barons demanded which, essentially, took a lot of power from the Crown and a huge source of embarrassment to the King- a man supposedly on the throne due to divine intervention- one of which being that a Monarch was not ‘above’ but subject to the law. Just one year later, John sought permission from the Pope to annual the document but when his young son came to the throne, he reinstated it, to keep the peace.
Magna Carta wasn’t just important at this point in history though. One huge example is that it was referenced during the American Wars of Independence! Magna Carta has been entered within UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World Register’, cementing its claim as one of the world’s most important documents.
This is a document of social justice, of the right to fairness and a source of hope- a symbol of liberty. I think that deserves to be wished a very happy 800th birthday from the world, don’t you?