Magna Carta

Jamie Doward “Magna Carta 800 years on: recognition at last for ‘England’s greatest export’”


Eight hundred years ago next year, on 15 June 1215, on the banks of the Thames in Runnymede*2, an embattled King John met the English barons, who had backed his failed war against the French and were seeking to limit his powers. The weakened monarch had little choice but to witness the sealing of what some say is the world’s most important document, one that, symbolically at least, established a new relationship between the king and his subjects.

Thus the original Magna Carta, 3,500 words in Latin on a calfskin parchment, came into being, its enduring relevance confirmed in the many legal cases in which it is cited today. But while lawyers worship Magna Carta for laying the foundations for modern democracy, the defence of personal liberty and the protection of freedoms around the world, Britain largely ignores it. The 750th anniversary passed in 1965 with little fanfare. Plans for the 700th anniversary were abandoned due to the first world war. An appeal to the government for a national holiday next year, backed by many MPs, was rejected.

History as an academic discipline has also often been reluctant to pay homage. The 1214 battle of Bouvines, the decisive battle after which England was forced to concede it had lost most of its lands in France, a pivotal moment in the weakening of John’s position, has been described as “the most important battle in history that nobody has ever heard of”. And until recently Magna Carta was only on the periphery of the history syllabus. Even David Cameron, when asked on a US chat show, was unable to say what Magna Carta means in English (answer: “Great Charter”).

Runnymede also appears underwhelmed by its place in history. The only memorial to Magna Carta within the National Trust park that incorporates the meadow, bisected by a busy road, is a small, domed shelter built in 1957 by the American Bar Association. Two signs explain how the Pilgrim Fathers took a copy of Magna Carta with them, which helped Americans to frame their constitution, and how the document was used by Nancy Astor to promote universal suffrage, and by William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln to press for the abolition of slavery.

The absence of a more fitting British memorial is surprising. Apparently the National Trust feared that putting Runnymede on the cultural map would cause traffic problems.


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