This is the story of an 800 year old medieval document known as Magna Carta, or the ‘Great Charter’. It’s one of the most famous documents in the world. But how did this old piece of parchment become such a powerful symbol of our rights and freedoms?
Magna Carta was granted in 1215 and established for the first time that everyone, even the king, had to obey the law. When Magna Carta was printed for the first time, it became the first law that all English lawyers studied. But many people didn’t realise its significance. Shakespeare wrote a play about King John in which he failed to mention Magna Carta.
In the 1600s, English lawyers used Magna Carta to challenge King Charles I. At this time, the king could ignore parliament and imprison anyone who opposed him. Inspired by Magna Carta, Sir Edward Coke wrote the Petition of Right, which set out to limit the king’s powers.
Around the same time, Magna Carta was taken overseas to America by the first British settlers. Many American colonies based their own laws on Magna Carta. Then, in the 1770s the Americans fought for independence from Britain. Magna Carta became a symbol of American liberty, and its principles were echoed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
In 18th century Britain, Magna Carta was used to protest against the censorship of the press. At this time, people could be imprisoned without trial for criticising the king. When newspaper publisher John Wilkes was arrested for insulting King George III, he used Magna Carta to fight for his freedom. He claimed that ancient English liberties were under threat. Wilkes’s campaign showed Magna Carta on everything from posters to teapots. You could say that Magna Carta went viral!
In the 1800s, very few people had the right to vote in Britain. A nationwide movement of working people known as the Chartists, inspired by Magna Carta, created a ‘People’s Charta’ to fight for all men to have the vote. Then, in the early 1900s the Suffragettes used Magna Carta to argue that all women should have the right to vote too.
Increasingly, people across the empire argued for rights equal to those of British citizens. Gandhi fought successfully for greater freedom for the Indian settlers in South Africa. He described the resulting document as ‘the Magna Carta of our liberty in this land.’ In his famous speech from the dock, Nelson Mandela declared his admiration for Magna Carta and for Western democracy, which he contrasted with the oppressive South African regime.
Perhaps the most significant influence of Magna Carta today is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Written after the atrocities of World War II, the declaration states that people around the world are protected by fundamental human rights, regardless of their citizenship, race, gender or beliefs. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said that the Declaration may well become ‘the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere’.
Although very few of Magna Carta’s original clauses remain valid in English law, it continues to inspire people worldwide. Not a bad legacy for an 800 year old document!