The Magna Carta was granted 800 years ago. A series of events are taking place on the anniversary to mark the occasion, including a flotilla of boats sailing down the Thames and a royal appearance in Runnymede, the site of the charter's sealing all those years ago.

Google has marked the occasion with one of its trademark doodles.


The animated doodle shows King John signing the Magna Carta, meaning ‘The Great Charter’ - which is one of the most famous documents in the world.
So what is it, how did it come about, and what does it do today?

What is Magna Carta?
Magna Carta is an 800-year-old document containing the idea that no-one is above the law, and it still forms the foundation of many modern ideas and documents today. Hand-written in Latin on sheepskin, it’s around 3,500 words. The four copies are from different hands and the transcribers made mistakes.

What does Magna Carta mean?
It means "Great Charter" in Latin. In fact the whole document is in Latin.

When and where was Magna Carta granted?
Magna Carta was first drawn up in 1215, granted by King John on June 15 at Runnymede near the River Thames in Surrey. A different version (the one we draw from today) was reissued by John's son, Henry III, 10 years later in 1225. Magna Carta was finally enrolled on the statute book (meaning it became part of English law) by Edward I in 1297.

How many of the original Magna Carta documents survive?
King John sent copies of the first Magna Carta across his kingdom - though we are not certain about the actual number. Today only four survive: one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Library.

Why was Magna Carta first written and granted?
Despite what it stands for today, Magna Carta was not written with lofty ideas of justice and liberty in mind. It was originally meant as a peace treaty between King John (of Robin Hood fame) and his barons, with whom he was at war. The barons had captured London and John found himself in a political mess - he needed a quick get-out solution.

Did Magna Carta achieve its short-term aims of creating peace?
Not at all - in fact it failed spectacularly. Although John agreed to Magna Carta at first, he quickly became bitter when its terms were forced upon him. He wrote to the Pope to get it annulled. The Pope actually happened to agree with John (for once), saying Magna Carta was "illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people". He then declared the charter "null and void of all validity for ever".

Full-scale civil war then broke out between John and his barons. It only ended after John's death from illness in 1216.

Is it true that King John never "signed" Magna Carta?
Yes, at least not in the way we think of signing. Back in the Middle Ages kings never signed their name on documents to pass them into law. Instead John used his Great Seal to authenticate the document. This subtlety has confused many people over the years. Most recently the Royal Mint has been criticised for the design on its commemorative 800th anniversary £2 coin, which shows John brandishing the document and a quill.

Why did John's son reissue Magna Carta?
Henry III came to the throne aged just nine. A few days into his reign, important men around the young king issued a new version of Magna Carta to try to regain the barons' support. When Henry reached 18 years old he reissued a greatly-revised version in his own name. This 1225 document was granted explicitly in return for a tax payment by the whole kingdom.
How much of Magna Carta is relevant today?

The original Magna Carta had 63 clauses. A third of this text was either cut or rewritten for the 1225 version. Today, only three of the original 63 clauses remain on the statute books. Of these three survivors one defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third gives all English subjects the right to justice and a fair trial.

There are some very good reasons the other 60 clauses have been dropped. Many are very specific to the Middle Ages - dealing with property ownership, the workings of the justice system, and taxes with no modern equivalent ("scutage" and "socage" anyone?)

Other clauses that we have dispensed with include a law banning fish weirs on rivers, the dismissal of specific individual royal servants, and the standardisation of weights and measures we do not use any more.

How important is that clause about justice and a fair trial?
It is incredibly important today, but it was buried deep in the original document and made very little splash in 1215. Part of its success is its adaptability to all sorts of situations throughout the centuries.

If you were wondering what the actual text was, here it is (translated into modern English of course):

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no-one will we sell, to no-one deny or delay right or justice."

That basically means the law belongs to everyone, not just the powerful. It is the bedrock of our society today.

When has Magna Carta been used throughout the centuries?
In 1265 - just 40 years after Henry III's final reissuing of Magna Carta - the relationship between the promises made by the king and the granting of taxation paved the way for the first English Parliament.
In the next century, Parliament interpreted Magna Carta as a right to a fair trial for all subjects.

During the Stuart period, and particularly in the English Civil War, Magna Carta was used to restrain the power of monarchs (at a time when monarchs on the continent were supremely powerful).

There are strong influences from Magna Carta in the American Bill of Rights (written in 1791). To this day there is a 1297 copy in the National Archives in Washington DC.

Even more recently, we can see the basic principles of Magna Carta very clearly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - penned in 1948 just after the Second World War.

When King John stuck his seal on that parchment eight centuries ago, he could not possibly have known the magnitude of what he was doing.

What is happening to mark the anniversary?
Months and months of events have been taking place as part of the government-led Magna Carta 800th celebrations, but the climax comes on 14 and 15 June. In Runnymede, a statue of the Queen will be unveiled while boats float along the Thames to the historic site and a pageant takes place.

The Magna Carta Trail in Lincoln
On 15 June, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Cambridge, the Princess Royal and Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence will visit the meadow.

 

This article was originally published here in the Independent on 15.06.15

Magna Carta by Dan Jones is out now in ebook and hardback