800 Years Ago Today: Magna Carta

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An original version of the Magna Carta on display at Sotheby’s auction house in New York is shown on 17 Dec 2007. An edition of the document from 1300 was discovered in a town archive in England. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

An original version of the Magna Carta on display at Sotheby’s auction house in New York is shown on 17 Dec 2007. An edition of the document from 1300 was discovered in a town archive in England. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Magna Carta, or “The Great Charter of the Liberties of England”, was originally issued on this date in the year 1215.  The charter required King John of England to proclaim certain liberties and accept that his will was not arbitrary, for example by explicitly accepting that no “freeman” (in the sense of non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land, a right which is still in existence today.  It was the first document forced onto an English King by a group of his subjects, the feudal barons, in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their privileges.  It was preceded and directly influenced by the Charter of Liberties in 1100, in which King Henry I had specified particular areas wherein his powers would be limited. Despite its recognized importance, by the second half of the 19th century nearly all of its clauses had been repealed in their original form. Three clauses currently remain part of the law of England and Wales, however, and it is generally considered part of the uncodified constitution.  Lord Denning described it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.  In a 2005 speech, Lord Woolf described it as “first of a series of instruments that now are recognized as having a special constitutional status”, the others being the Habeas Corpus Act (1679), the Petition of Right (1628), the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701).

I can trace a direct line of descent from four of the so-called “Sureties” of Magna Carta, and the details can be found — > HERE.  Popular perception is that King John and the barons signed Magna Carta.  There were no signatures on the original document, however, only a single seal placed by the king.  The words of the charter – Data per manum nostram – signify that the document was personally given by the king’s hand.  By placing his seal on the document, the King and the barons followed common law that a seal was sufficient to authenticate a deed, though it had to be done in front of witnesses.  John’s seal was the only one, and he did not sign it.  The barons neither signed nor attached their seals to it.  However, the names of the Barons, Bishops and Abbots who were party to Magna Carta are known from other sources.

In February 2015, the PBS Newshour published an article on a forgotten copy of the Magna Carta that was discovered in 2014 in a Victorian-era scrapbook in Kent County, England.  A link to the original article is — > HERE.

For decades, the document, which dates back to 1300, lay forgotten in archives belonging to the town of Sandwich, which intends to keep the charter as a tourist attraction.

Dr. Mark Bateson, a Kent archivist, found the document late last year while looking for a copy of the Charter of the Forest, another medieval legal document, which granted common people access to royal lands, among other things. The two documents were found together in a scrapbook from the late 19th century. The only other such pair in the world belongs to Oriel College, Oxford.

Although the copy of the Magna Carta has been damaged by moisture and is missing about a third of its original text, it has historical and monetary value as one of just 24 known copies of the legal code, which Sotheby’s auction house has called “the most famous document in history.”

Nicholas Vincent, a professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia in England, who authenticated the discovery, estimates the document is worth up to 10 million British pounds ($15.2 million).

The mayor of Sandwich Town Council, Paul Graeme, told the Guardian: “On behalf of Sandwich town council, I would like to say that we are absolutely delighted to discover that an original Magna Carta and original Charter of the Forest, previously unknown, are in our ownership.”

“To own one of these documents, let alone both, is an immense privilege given their international importance,” he said.

The original Magna Carta, written entirely in Latin, was the result of a compromise between the king and a group of rebel barons in 1215.

The famous charter established several important legal principles, including the rule of law and the notion that everyone–including the king—is subject to the law. It also codified the right of habeas corpus, stating that no free person should be imprisoned without a lawful trial.

Today (15 Jun 2015) marks 800 years since King John sealed the Magna Carta near London in 1215.  The occasion will commemorated by a year-long series of events across the United Kingdom, including an initiative, planned for the eve of the anniversary, called LiberTeas, in which parliament will encourage citizens to “sit down to tea to celebrate, debate or reflect on their liberties.”



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