800 years ago, Magna Carta was signed. Since then, it has been variously appropriated. But what exactly did it say?

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.

The celebrations begin this year on February 3. For one day, the only four known copies of Magna Carta 1215 will be brought together for the first time, at the British Library, where they will be seen by the 1,215 people who have won their tickets in a public ballot. There will be plenty more Magna Carta pageantry during the rest of the year, including an exhibition, also at the British Library, a royal visit to Runnymede on the anniversary itself and many other smaller events in towns across the UK – Lincoln, Bury St Edmunds, Salisbury and more – who claim a historic connection with the Great Charter.

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”.

During the combined reigns of these first three Plantagenets, English government experienced deep changes. The power and wealth of the crown increased dramatically, particularly in relation to the power of the English barons.

For many people this had been quite good. Royal justice was more available than at any time before. It was easier to protect your land. By 12th-century standards, the realm had been peaceful, with only one major outbreak of civil war, in 1173-74. Until 1204 the Plantagenets ruled about a third of modern France, which meant that Henry II and Richard I were effectively absentees from their kingdom – so they tended not to interfere with baronial business.

Not everyone, however, was happy. The costs of defending a Plantagenet empire reaching from Scotland to the Pyrenees meant that English government was set up to extract money from the realm as efficiently as possible. This meant regular and high taxes. It also meant exploiting what we call the king’s feudal prerogatives. These were payments that the king claimed the right to demand from his barons when they inherited estates and titles, or when he wanted to raise an army, and so on.

At some points the costs were dizzying. Richard I’s involvement in the Third Crusade, after which he was taken prisoner and held for ransom, cost perhaps £200,000: roughly the equivalent of 10 years’ national income. (In the UK today the equivalent cost might be £6.5tn: Richard’s crusade would be like England paying for the entire recent war in Afghanistan twice in three years.) And that was only one expense. There were equally massive wars in France, rebellions to put down and the ordinary cost of government. So the Plantagenets were in chronic need of money and squeezed the country – particularly the barons – hard. That would have been bad enough – but in 1199, along came John.

John’s reputation was abysmal in his time, and has remained so ever since. “Tyrannous whelp”, was how one chronicler described him: he was generally thought to be untrustworthy, mean-spirited, cruel, violent and paranoid. He had a legalistic mind and grasp of the machinery of government that amounted almost to genius, but he was also a second-rate and unlucky military leader and an eminently dislikable man.

In 1203-04, John lost the Plantagenet lands in Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Touraine. He subsequently fell out with the church to the point where the Pope placed England under Interdict and excommunicated John personally. He murdered his nephew and rival Arthur of Brittany and killed scores of hostages and several old friends – including one baron’s wife, Matilda de Briouze, who was starved to death in the same cell as her son and died mad with hunger trying to eat her dead boy’s face.

On top of all this, in his efforts to raise the money to take an army to France and reclaim the lands he had lost, John ratcheted up the financial extortions on the English barons to an unbearable degree, levying huge fines on individual lords. It was also said that he seduced several of their wives and daughters.

By 1215 a large group of his nobles had had enough. An attempt to assassinate John in 1212 failed, but after the king’s continental allies suffered a humiliating military loss at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, the English barons rebelled and a civil war began. The peace talks to try to stop that war from escalating resulted in this treaty: Magna Carta.

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.”

These have been interpreted in the centuries that followed 1215 as setting out the basic liberties of an English subject. They were seized upon by Sir Edward Coke and subsequent opponents of Charles I during the 17th century. The Founding Fathers drew on them in writing the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. These ideas are present in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – described in 1946 by its champion Eleanor Roosevelt as “a Magna Carta for all mankind”.

Really, though, this is only a small part of Magna Carta, buried far down the treaty. More important at the time were clauses that guaranteed the freedom of the English Church and the city of London and placed heavy limits on the king’s ability to exploit his feudal prerogatives and extort his barons.

Politicians today love to invoke Magna Carta as a bulwark for the rights of the ordinary man. But it would be more accurate to say that Magna Carta’s clauses variously offered special legal protection for the Catholic Church and the aristocracy, advocated tax breaks for the wealthiest, freed the City of London from regulatory oversight, promised total freedom of immigration and placed the burden of infrastructure maintenance on local communities instead of government. Any party that stood on a platform that was true to the spirit of Magna Carta today would be massacred at the polls.

Yet, of course, Magna Carta has grown to mean something quite different from the material of its clauses. This process began early. Magna Carta 1215 was nullified by the Pope after eight weeks. But in 1216, after John’s death, it was reissued voluntarily by his son’s minority government as a gesture of political goodwill and an indication of their willingness to govern fairly.

Over the course of the 13th century, political crises were often resolved with official reissues or reconfirmations of the charter. (The 1297 Magna Carta, copies of which are in the US National Archives and Australia’s Parliament House, was one such reissue.) Thus, by the end of the Middle Ages, Magna Carta’s clauses were largely outdated and obsolete – but its place as a symbol of a government’s willingness to embrace restraint had been fixed.

Subsequently, that legend has grown in inverse proportion to the relevance of the detail of Magna Carta. By Victorian times – when the historian Bishop Stubbs declared all English constitutional history to be “a commentary on Magna Carta” – the charter had become wholly unmoored from its original purpose and now simply represented Year Zero in the march towards civil liberties and British democracy.

Today Magna Carta’s clauses are all either repealed or redundant in British law, but its name is invoked for all sorts of purposes. Some are noble: it was used in the fight against the Blair government’s wish to extend the period of detention without trial to 42 days. Some are silly: Jay Z unveiled the artwork to his latest album (Magna Carta Holy Grail) next to the charter at Salisbury Cathedral, using it as an analogy for his wish to “rewrite the rules” of the music business.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has recently called for a Magna Carta for the web, and that perhaps points us towards the charter’s future. No longer are its clauses politically important. But its legend is more potent than ever.

- Dan Jones

This article was originally published in The Telegraph on 1st January 2015

Magna Carta: the Making and Legacy of the Great Charter by Dan Jones is available in hardback and ebook.