‘NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.’
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215 at Runnymede on the banks of the Thames. First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it is credited with being one of the first moves taken in England towards establishing parliamentary democracy and legal respect for the rights of the individual.
Although much of Magna Carta is impenetrable to the modern reader and few of us have actually read it, the document has gained a central place in British political life and remains a touchstone for civil liberties. Despite the frequency with which it is invoked only three clauses are still valid today. The charter’s most famous clauses forbid the king to delay, sell or deny justice, and protect any free man from imprisonment “save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land”. It had been popular believed that the charter provided protections on individual liberties to the common man, however, this only applied to barons who represented a tiny elite minority.
The political myth of the Magna Carta as an affirmation of individual liberties has persisted throughout the centuries and it is still considered a sacred text by many and part of Britain’s unwritten constitution. This misinterpretation had enormous impact on the Founding Fathers of the United State who created the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on this foundation.
Magna Carta carries little legal weight in modern Britain as all but three of its clauses have been repealed but it continues to have a powerful iconic status in society. It is often cited by politicians and is held in great esteem by the British and American legal sectors. For example, in 2008 Tony Benn described government attempts to increase the maximum time terrorism suspects could be held without charge as “the day Magna Carta was repealed”.
Magna Carta still forms an important symbol of liberty today and remains central to our understanding of our rights and the way we are governed. It set a precedent that was followed by the United States Bill of Rights in 1689 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It symbolises the idea of the ‘Rule of Law’ and the idea that that even those who rule are subject to the law.