Magna Carta in the 20th century

Throughout the 20th century, Magna Carta inspired figures across the political spectrum, from suffragists and fascists to those drafting human rights legislation. Dr Alexander Lock explores the charter’s relationship to the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and modern America.

Although today only three of its clauses remain on the statute book, Magna Carta continues to flourish as a potent and internationally recognised symbol of freedom under the rule of law. Generations have valorised Magna Carta as the ‘corner stone of English liberty’ and guarantor of democratic government. In its most modern incarnation it is seen as a charter that heroically established the right to trial by jury and ensured that no one – not even the king – was above the law. While the history of the Great Charter is more complicated than this popular historical narrative allows, the repetition of this interpretation has enabled Magna Carta to become a powerful totem of liberty, right and justice through the ages. As the Dean of Harvard Law School, Erwin N Griswold, noted in 1965, ‘Magna Carta is not primarily significant for what it was but rather for what it was made to be’.

Contemporary references to Magna Carta are legion. Despite being 800 years old it still regularly appears in political debates, courtroom judgments and newspaper opinion pieces around the world. Such is the power and flexibility of its message that lawyers and commentators still reference it, even though today’s issues and technologies have little in common with medieval England. In 1966, for example, William A Hyman drafted a ‘Magna Carta of Space’, while more recently in 2014 and 2018 Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, made calls for a ‘Magna Carta for the internet’.

Magna Carta and human rights

Perhaps the most important modern legacy of Magna Carta is its influence on both the language and intent of contemporary international charters on human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, consciously echoed the clauses of Magna Carta relating to freedom of movement, arbitrary arrest and trial by jury. It was hoped, as Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), the chairman of the committee, stated, that the Universal Declaration would help extend the Great Charter’s promise of liberty across the world and would hopefully become ‘the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere ’.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Front cover of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A blue logo decorates the front cover, it shows a world map sitting between laurel branches

Written following the atrocities of WWII, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that people around the world should be protected by fundamental human rights, regardless of their citizenship, race, gender or beliefs.

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The European Convention on Human Rights was ratified in 1950 and represented a collective commitment of European states to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration. It echoed the famous clause 29 of the 1225 Magna Carta which prevented punishment without ‘lawful judgment of his peers’. Articles five and six (paragraph one) of the Convention assert that ‘everyone has the right to liberty and security of person’, and shall not ‘be deprived of his liberty save … in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law’, tried by ‘a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time’.

European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

Page four of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

These articles come from a pan-European treaty (1950) demonstrating a commitment to enforce the freedoms expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Magna Carta across the globe

As these international declarations of human rights demonstrate, Magna Carta is widely recognised as a key historical document across the globe, and it continues to be seen as an enduring symbol of freedom and the rule of law. One example of the document’s enduring international importance is the purchase by the Australian government in 1952 of a 1297 Magna Carta from an English private school for £12,500. This manuscript is now displayed prominently in Australia’s Parliament building in Canberra, not far from Magna Carta Place and its monument to the document, erected in 1997. Elsewhere across the Commonwealth, Magna Carta has been vaunted as an important document for individual political rights. It was publicly praised by Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) during his famous trial for his life at Pretoria in 1964 and looked to by women agitating for female suffrage in the Bahamas in the 1960s.

Nelson Mandela's speech 'I am prepared to die' at the Rivonia trial

Printed open book. Pages 18-19 of Nelson Mandela's speech 'I am prepared to die'

Nelson Mandela, put on trial for his life in 1964, declared from the dock his admiration for western democracy, stating that Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights and the Bill of Rights were ‘held in veneration by democrats’ worldwide.

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Indeed, in the cause for women’s rights worldwide, Magna Carta has represented an important symbol of justice. In 1911, a feature article on the Great Charter in the suffragette newspaper Votes for Women used it to justify direct action against the authorities. In 1915, Helena Normanton (1882–1957), the suffragette and lawyer, claimed that denying women the right to vote was ‘expressly contrary to Magna Carta’, which had stated that right and justice should be neither delayed nor denied. Most recently, in August 2009, the government of the Philippines passed into law the Republic Act 9710, better known as the ‘Magna Carta for Women’, guaranteeing fundamental women’s rights in law.

Maud Arncliffe Sennett's scrapbook, volume 13

Cartoon captioned 'Magna Carta' in publication Votes for women. The cartoon depicts the Barons, who are wearing chainmail, presenting the Magna Carta to King John who is wearing a crown and seated on a throne

Votes for Women was the official newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which campaigned for women’s suffrage in Britain. This 1911 issue depicts the barons presenting Magna Carta to King John; while an accompanying essay outlines ‘How Militant Methods Won the Great Charter’

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Article on Magna Carta and women from journal The Englishwoman

First page of a Printed article on Magna Carta and women from the journal 'The Englishwoman'

In 1915, to coincide with Magna Carta’s 700th anniversary, the suffragette campaigner, Helena Normanton (d. 1957), published this essay on ‘Magna Carta and Women’. In it she argued that the disenfranchisement of women contravened Magna Carta’s famous clauses 39 and 40.

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Magna Carta in America

Though it is widely recognised across the globe, it is perhaps in the USA that Magna Carta enjoys the greatest prestige today. Inherited from England by the early colonists, Magna Carta is considered the basis for the United States constitutional guarantees of equality under the law and due process as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and US Bill of Rights. Murals depicting the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede decorate the walls of numerous courthouses across America, including the Supreme Court[1]. Such is America’s reverence for the document that in 2007 the American financier David Rubenstein paid $21.3 million (equivalent to roughly £13.5 million) to obtain a copy for the nation – the highest price ever paid for a single sheet of parchment.

With certain exceptions – including a plaque laid by the Prime Minister of India in 1997 and a small memorial lodge belonging to the National Trust – the site of Runnymede itself is dominated by American monuments. The most magnificent of the memorials is a flood-lit neo-classical rotunda erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association. Designed by the English architect Sir Edward Maufe (1883–1974), the rotunda is filled with American stars and houses a pedestal dedicated to ‘Magna Carta symbol of freedom under law’.

Nearby is an oak tree planted in 1987 by the Secretary of the United States Army with soil from Virginia, as well as a small cenotaph commemorating the assassinated President John F. Kennedy (1917–63). The Kennedy memorial was consciously placed at Runnymede in order to strengthen Anglo-American relations during the Cold War and to promote the notion that America, ‘the Land of the Free’, had inherited the ideals of liberty from England’s Magna Carta sealed at Runnymede. In her speech dedicating the monument to Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II stated that Magna Carta was ‘a part of the heritage which the people of the United States of America share with us’, and that it was therefore ‘altogether fitting’ that Runnymede ‘should be the site of Britain’s memorial to the late President ’.

Magna Carta memorial, Runnymede

Black and white photograph of a neo-classical rotunda with trees behind it

The flood-lit neo-classical rotunda erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association is the most magnificent of the memorials at Runnymede. The pedestal inside commemorates Magna Carta as a ‘symbol of freedom under law’.

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Gifting Magna Carta to the United States

This was not the first time that Magna Carta had been used to strengthen Anglo-American relations. At the outbreak of World War II, an original 1215 Magna Carta belonging to Lincoln Cathedral became stranded in the USA where it had been displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. As the war intensified the British government debated the idea of gifting the document to the USA as a means of strengthening American public opinion in favour of the British war effort, and with the ultimate goal of bringing America into the war. The British Government recognised in internal memoranda that ‘Magna Carta is a part of American, as well as of English, history and both peoples equally trace their personal liberties from the signing of that document’. By emphasising the common ‘history and traditions which the two countries have in common’ and which are based in a common ideal of liberty, the proposed gift of Magna Carta, it was thought, would ‘greatly heighten the emotional interest of Americans’ in the war against fascism. As one Foreign Office memorandum put it:

The gift of Magna Carta would be at once the most precious of gifts and the most gracious acts in American eyes; it would represent the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country .

Cabinet papers proposing that Magna Carta be gifted to the USA, with annotations by Sir Winston Churchill

Typed page, black ink of white paper. Cabinet papers proposing that Magna Carta be gifted to the USA

During WWII, a British memorandum proposed gifting the 1215 Lincoln copy of Magna Carta to the United States. The government believed this could strengthen Anglo-American relations and thus support the war effort.

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Although Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was involved in the discussion, the plan was quietly dropped in mid-April 1941 when it was realised that the manuscript did not belong to the government to give away. Following the attacks on Pearl Harbour, by December of that year the United States had entered the war and Lincoln’s Magna Carta spent the remainder of the conflict safely locked in Fort Knox under close guard until it was returned home in 1946.

Magna Carta and the British Union of Fascists

Of all Magna Carta’s uses during World War Two, perhaps the most surprising is that made of it by the British Union of Fascists (BUF) who engaged Magna Carta to oppose Defence Regulation 18B. This regulation allowed the indefinite detention without charge of people suspected of posing a threat to national security, leading to the imprisonment of many BUF members including their leader Oswald Mosely (1896–1980) and his wife Diana.

Letters of Sydney Freeman-Mitford and Viscount Cranborne on the detention of Oswald Mosley

Hand written letter. Several lines have been struck through and corrections made.

In this letter of 1940, Lady Redesdale protests against the imprisonment of her daughter Diana Mosely and son-in-law Edward Mosely (leader of the British Union of Fascists). The legislation that allowed them to be detained indefinitely without trial, she claimed, ‘broke Magna Carta’ and ‘an Englishman’s right to trial’.

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In the guise of the 18B Publicity Council, the outlawed BUF issued a series of pamphlets invoking Magna Carta to decry the infringement of their civil liberties that the legislation caused. Their pamphlets appeared under titles such as Runnymede Reversed and Magna Carta in the Dustbin, and all variously claimed that this ‘obnoxious Regulation, which completely destroys the fundamental principles of British liberty’ means ‘Magna Carta is well and truly in the dustbin, Habeas Corpus on the scrap heap and the Bill of Rights gone for salvage’.

Magna Carta in the Dustbin

Open book image. Foreward to and the opening of 'Magna Carta in the Dustbin'

This pamphlet (1943), written under the pseudonym Jane Zedd, declares that Magna Carta is ‘well and truly in the dustbin’. It was created by the British Union of Fascists, whose rights were limited during the war by Defence Regulation 18B.

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Magna Carta in opposition to Fascism

Magna Carta was also referenced by those opposing fascism. In 1940 the German Jewish composer, Kurt Weill (1900–50), then living in New York, composed a ‘Ballad of Magna Carta’ which represented the war on the continent as one in defence of liberty against ‘tyrants’. The allies also made use of the Charter as an embodiment of those ideals over which the conflict was fought. It is no coincidence that the Airforce’s Memorial commemorating over 20,000 airmen who lost their lives in World War II was built on Cooper’s Hill overlooking the site of Runnymede. As Queen Elizabeth II noted at the opening of the memorial, there could be no better location for the monument:

It was in those fields of Runnymede seven centuries ago that our forefathers first planted a seed of liberty which helped to spread across the earth the conviction that man should be free and not enslaved .

Score of The Ballad of Magna Carta

Front cover of the Score of 'The Ballad of Magna Carta'. Orange paper, black ink. The title is displayed in within a scroll representing magna carta

Composed by Kurt Weill and first performed in 1940, The Ballad portrays King John as a deeply unpopular monarch, abandoned by his supporters and compelled to agree to Magna Carta.

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Usage terms © The Ballad of Magna Carta: Cantata for Solo Voices & Chorus with Piano Accompaniment. Words by Maxwell Anderson, Music by Kurt Weill (New York: Chappell & Co., 1940)
Held by© The Ballad of Magna Carta: Cantata for Solo Voices & Chorus with Piano Accompaniment. Words by Maxwell Anderson, Music by Kurt Weill (New York: Chappell & Co., 1940)

On St George’s Day, April 1944, two months prior to the D-Day landings, service personnel from the Ninth United States Air Force paraded at Runnymede and presented a national flag to the citizens of Egham in a thanksgiving ceremony for Magna Carta. The parade demonstrated publicly the strength of Anglo-American unity and highlighted Magna Carta as a metaphor for the shared values of liberty and freedom for which the allies were fighting.

A powerful protean symbol

Magna Carta has become closely associated with ideas of good governance, justice and liberty. The very fact that Magna Carta could be celebrated by the British Union of Fascists at the same time that the British government was negotiating its gift to the United States; or the fact that Helena Normanton could invoke it in support of women’s political rights, denied by a Parliament whose very building is permeated with the iconography of the Great Charter, goes to the very heart of why Magna Carta has endured for 800 years. It is a powerful protean symbol whose broad – and often misinterpreted – principles can be used to defend a range of political and legal positions and lend the semblance of political legitimacy to those that invoke it. This has been the case throughout the Great Charter’s history and, as the modern invocations suggest, it is still the case today.


[1] Just as in the Supreme Court of the United States – where Magna Carta appears on the door and in the courtroom itself – the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is imbued with references to the Great Charter. The front of the Court boasts a grand frieze depicting King John granting Magna Carta completed in 1913, whilst the Court’s library doors, made in 2008, are etched with a facsimile of the Great Charter. Across Parliament Square, in Westminster Palace, Magna Carta is equally celebrated as part of the nation’s historical narrative. 18 grand sculptures of the Magna Carta barons and bishops, commissioned by Prince Albert in 1858, look down into the chamber of the House of Lords, whilst in St. Stephen’s Hall hangs an enormous, and unsettling, painting of King John sealing Magna Carta, painted as part of a series of pictures marking 'Great domestic events in British history' in 1927.

  • Alex Lock
  • Alexander Lock researched the post-medieval legacy of Magna Carta for the British Library’s major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (13 March–1 September 2015). His particular area of expertise focuses on 18th-century British political, religious and economic history, and he has recently completed an AHRC funded research project on the life and networks of the English Catholic baronet Sir Thomas Gascoigne (1745-1810) due to be published by Boydell and Brewer in 2015.

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