HM - Jan. 2015 - Middleton

The History File

Magna Carta at 800
By Tiffany Middleton
American Bar Association

In a 1997 episode of “The Simpsons,” Lisa Simpson proudly declared that when she had to learn about Magna Carta, she made up a song:

In 1215 at Runnymede, do, da, do da.
The nobles and the king agreed, oh, do, da, day.
(Sung to the tune of “Camp Town Races”, in “Reality Bites,” episode 9, season 9)

Lisa’s song is short, pithy, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, accurate (as far as it goes). More recently, rapper Jay-Z’s 2013 album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” was pure media buzz as he partnered with Samsung to release it free, digitally, to customers who downloaded the appropriate app. The artwork for the album was unveiled alongside an original 1215 Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral in England. Songs on the album, unlike the episode of “The Simpsons,” told listeners nothing about Magna Carta, but, according to sources, the album was inspired by the “ideals of Magna Carta, and Jay-Z’s personal conviction” that these remain relevant today. Both of these examples suggest how representations of Magna Carta continue to penetrate American popular culture—in these cases, in most monumentally modern and mainstream ways. These instances serve as reminders of history as we prepare to commemorate globally the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015.

Magna Carta, which is Latin for “Great Charter,” may be traced back to medieval England, during the reign of King John (1199-1216). The first issue, which historians have estimated to have taken place near June 15, 1215 at Runnymede along the Thames River, was written in Latin on sheepskin parchment and was approximately 4,000 words. It emerged from a political crisis—an open conflict between “Bad King John” and rebellious barons and bishops—the result of weeks of negotiation. Magna Carta was, in effect, a peace treaty between the king and his subjects. The peace was short-lived, however. Pope Innocent III annulled the charter within ten weeks of its issuance, and civil war erupted in England. King John died the following year, in 1216, and Magna Carta was reissued and sealed by the Pope’s legate and royal agents acting on behalf of the new king, John’s 9-year old son, Henry III. This charter was substantially revised and abbreviated from the 1215 version. It would be re-issued in 1217, 1225, and 1297. As a result, Magna Carta’s “original documents” are numerous, and may be categorized by their year of issue.

The rights that were outlined in Magna Carta in 1215 were mostly specific to the needs of the English aristocrats confronting King John. They tended to address particular and longstanding grievances. Take Chapter 23, for example: “No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.” Or, Chapter 33: “All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.” Other clauses, however, seem to transcend their time and place, and speak to larger principles of law. Chapter 39, for example, has been interpreted as guaranteeing due process of law: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” Chapter 41 has been cited in relation to modern human rights to free travel: “All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs.”

For Americans, Magna Carta represents a formative element of our own legal and political heritage. It represents the core “rule of law” political value that “no ruler is above the law.” In a truly significant feature for its time, the original 1215 Magna Carta even included a provision that a committee of 25 barons would oversee King John’s enforcement of the document. It is also significant that Magna Carta was written, or recorded and distributed publicly. In addition, the rights articulated in Magna Carta applied to all free men, not simply barons and bishops. Magna Carta has come to symbolize “freedom under law,” finishing a lineage, which also includes the 1625 Petition of Right,  1776 Declaration of Independence, 1787 Constitution, 1797 Bill of Rights, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt likened to a “Magna Carta for all mankind.”

As the 800th anniversary looms large in 2015, there are numerous opportunities to learn and teach about Magna Carta. The American Bar Association, Law Library of Congress, National Archives, National History Day, and others are all planning public programs and sharing educational resources in the United States. Robust commemorations are also underway in the United Kingdom and around the world. The barons who met King John in the meadow at Runnymede in 1215 could not have known what a symbol of freedom their actions would become by 2015. Eight centuries later, we commemorate not only those events in 1215, but also what has happened since then, and remember that Magna Carta’s ideals of law and justice still present lessons today.
Magna Carta at 800 Suggested Resources
Law Day: May 1, 2015
Magna Carta: Symbol of Freedom Under Law 
Program planning resources, talking points, lesson plans, discussion guide, and other resources not only to commemorate Law Day, but also to teach about Magna Carta.
Magna Carta 800th
Official commemoration site for the United Kingdom with maps, articles, videos, and even the Magna Carta 800 store.
Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor
Exhibit resources from the Law Library of Congress, including images, videos, podcasts, and blog. Muse and Mentor features one of the four existing original 1215 Magna Cartas. The American Bar Association is sponsoring a complementary traveling exhibit, which may visit your community.
National Archives
The National Archives maintains an original 1297 version of Magna Carta and offers resources, including a video of its conservation.
National History Day
A $1,000 prize, sponsored by the American Bar Association, will be presented to outstanding paper entries in each of the junior and senior History Day divisions that incorporate discussion of Magna Carta as an important building block in the advancement of the rule of law and of individual rights in the United States.

Sons of the American Revolution
As part of the SAR’s annual essay competition, there are prizes for outstanding essays that choose a topic related to Magna Carta and its influence on the American Revolution or one or more of the Framers. First prize is $2,000 and a commemorative medal.
Teaching About Magna Carta Toolkit
Request a free Magna Carta toolkit, which includes a copy of the Magna Carta issue of Insights on Law & Society, articles, and other resources.