by Heather Kushnerick, Special Collections Librarian & College Archivist
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede. The barons of England forced King John to sign it to address their many grievances (specifically his high taxes and exploitation of feudal rights as he attempted to raise money to wage war in France) in order to avoid civil war. The Great Charter, however, was promptly nullified by Pope Innocent III. It therefore failed to resolve any of England’s internal issues and, instead, the country descended into the war that it was supposed to prevent. King John died in October 1216, allowing for a compromise to be reached with his son and successor, Henry III. Magna Carta was issued several times, but it wasn’t until 1297, during the reign of Edward I, that it was entered into the official Statute Rolls of England.
Magna Carta is one of the most famous documents in the world. It established for the first time the principle that everyone – king included - was subject to the law. While the 1215 Magna Carta was essentially a failed peace treaty, the 1225 version, issued by Henry III, became the definitive version. Of the 63 original clauses, only three remain part of English law today: one defends the liberties and rights of the Church of England, one confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the final one, the most famous, states “no 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 other to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.” (http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-an-introduction)
This is the clause that gives us the right to due process and a fair trial. Magna Carta has a special status as the cornerstone of English liberties and remains a symbol of defense against tyranny. In the United States, Magna Carta inspired and justified action during the American Revolution as the colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen. Those rights were enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The American colonies were founded during a time when Magna Carta was experiencing a legal revival. Sir Edward Coke used it to oppose the Stuart kings, and his commentary on the Great Charter in his second Institute was printed by order of the Long Parliament. The charters for the colonies included the guarantee that the New World occupants would have the same rights as Englishmen. Legal codes developed in the colonies included the liberties provided by Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights. Coke’s Institutes of the Laws of England were widely studied by American law students, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison. It is not surprising, then, that those same men should look to Coke and his interpretation of Magna Carta when preparing for revolution and the creation of a new nation.
To celebrate Law Day 2015, visit the Fred Parks Law Library to view a display on Magna Carta and its influence on American law from our collection. Also, for a bit of fun, visit the British Library’s webpage to view an animated video on Magna Carta narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones.
U.S. National Archives & Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/magna_carta/print_friendly.html?page=legacy_content.html&title=Magna_Carta (accessed 4/29/2015)
The British Library. http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-an-introduction. (Accessed 4/28/2015)
Magna Carta 800th. http://magnacarta800th.com/history-of-the-magna-carta/ .
Pound, Roscoe. ,”A Foreward to the Pageant of Magna Carta.” 14 A.B.A. J. 526 1928.