Magna Carta: From King John's lechery and treachery to our liberty

Magna Carta, the cornerstone document of English liberty, is 800 years old. Here's a look at six interesting things about the charter, from the King's character to why it has such staying power.

Copy touring Canada as historians unearth new details in 800-year-old charter

People look at the four surviving original parchments of the 1215 Magna Carta, displayed to mark the 800th anniversary of its sealing at Runnymede in 1215, in the Queen's Robing Room at the Houses of Parliament in London, Feb. 5. (Matt Dunham/pool/Associated Press)

Eight hundred years ago, on June 15, in a meadow west of London, England's King John concluded the negotiations with rebel barons that would produce what still ranks as one of the most important documents in human history: Magna Carta.

Around the world it has been and remains a rallying cry for human rights activists.

What's also extraordinary is how much, over the last few years, historians have discovered about Magna Carta and the events of 1215.

Here are six interesting things to know about Magna Carta, which means the Great Charter in Latin, as a tour of four Canadian cities begins Friday in Ottawa, featuring the Durham Cathedral's copy of the 1300 Magna Carta.

1. King John sealed Magna Carta, so why has no other English King had that name?

It could have something to do with John's reputation as a real jerk, or, as John Gillingham, one of the great historians of medieval England put it, as quoted on the Salisbury Cathedral website, "King John was a shit."

John was well known for his treachery and lechery (especially with the wives and daughters of his barons). The Dictionary of National Biography of 1900, a particularly staid publication, adds mention of John's insolence, extortion, betrayal, apostasy, marrying a child when he was about 33, and that he "ravaged the country mercilessly." 

Medieval historian Sophie Ambler of The Magna Carta Project in the U.K. speaks at a conference in Orem, Utah, Feb. 17. (Center of Constitutional Studies/Utah Valley University)

For the barons, perhaps worst of all was his incompetence, especially on the battlefield. John lost huge amounts of territory in what is now France.

For historian Sophie Ambler, with The Magna Carta Project in the U.K., John's carrying on "in a way that was not constricted by ordinary laws of proper behavior, is actually quite breath-taking." 

She says, "The more we discover about King John, I think the worse it gets." For Ambler, John's most notorious crimes were the starving to death of prisoners on several occasions, including women, children and nobles.

Royal family historian Carolyn Harris says John is not a traditional royal name and John himself was named for John the Baptist. Because he had three older brothers, his parents did not expect he would be King. 

Forget about a second King John. As Harris says "the name has been seen as rather unlucky within British royal history," noting the death from a seizure of Prince John, son of King George V, in 1919.

Harris is the author of Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada.

2. Why was the Magna Carta in effect for only a few months?

With rebellion brewing in 1213, King John declared his kingdom a papal fiefdom, four years after the pope had excommunicated John. That effort to win papal favour paid off for John when, on Aug. 24, 1215, Innocent III, from the Vatican, issued a papal bull characterizing Magna Carta as illegal, shameful, demeaning and even unjust.

The charter, he ruled, was "null and void of all validity for ever." For good measure, he threatened anyone who would oppose the annulment with "the anger of Almighty God."

And so the barons and King John turned to civil war to resolve their differences.

John died of dysentery in 1216, war still raging.

The rebel barons had been backing the son of the King of France for the English throne, but now they might switch their allegiance to John's nine-year-old son, Henry III. To win them back, Henry's guardians reissued a pared-down version of the 1215 Magna Carta.

The French invasion was soon over, and Kings would reissue Magna Carta in 1217, 1225, 1297 and 1300.

A combination photograph shows details (clockwise from top left) from the Salisbury Magna Carta, the Lincoln Magna Carta, the Canterbury Magna Carta and the London Magna Carta, at the British Library in London Feb. 2, the first time the four surviving 1215 Magna Cartas were brought together . (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

3. What clauses of Magna Carta are still in effect?

The 1297 Magna Carta was confirmed as legislation (in Latin) but has been amended by the British Parliament over the centuries, so that only four clauses from 1215 remain in effect. 

But that includes the most famous, original clauses 39-40: 

"No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised [dispossessed] 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."

The other clauses still on the books concern the Church of England and the City of London.

4. Why does Shakespeare's play King John make no reference to Magna Carta?

Carolyn Harris speaks at the launch of her book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada, at Queen's Park in Toronto, May 5. The book complements the Canadian tour of a 1300 Magna Carta. (Macdonell Photography)

Magna Carta had fallen into obscurity when William Shakespeare was writing, about the turn of the 17th century, and it simply wasn't part of popular culture then, says Harris.

At that time in England, there was a "sense that a strong monarch was needed to deal with outside threats," she says. Although Shakespeare does include aspects of John's villainous reputation, she says he also seemed to admire John for his conflict with the papacy and for resisting a French invasion.

About a decade after Shakespeare died in 1616, Magna Carta would begin to regain its fame as the cornerstone of English liberties, thanks primarily to jurist and politician Edward Coke. About 150 years later Coke's writings on Magna Carta would inspire and inform American revolutionaries then in confrontation with the British crown.

5.Why has Magna Carta had such staying power as a symbol of liberty?

Magna Carta has been a rallying cry for rights activists for centuries, like these Filipino students pressing their demand for an immediate passing of a bill called the Magna Carta for students, in Manila Oct. 2, 1997. (Reuters)

Both Ambler and Harris point to the clause quoted earlier stating the monarch, or the government, is not above the law — the headline clause, Ambler terms it — as one of the reasons why Magna Carta has so much symbolism today.

"It's a principle that resonates to people across the world, and has done ever since, because it affords them a degree of protection from the whims of those who have the power to crush them," she says.

Also part of the explanation, Ambler adds, is that people can interpret Magna Carta according to their own agenda, whether they are on the left or the right, whether for or against the monarchy.

Harris says another reason for Magna Carta's staying power is that it's "a living document that was interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries."

6. What have historians learned about Magna Carta in the last few years?

For such a crucial document in England's and world history, and its age of 800 years, it's remarkable how many new things historians are learning about Magna Carta.

Many of those discoveries have been by The Magna Carta Project, where Ambler is a member of the team.

The Salisbury Magna Carta, one of the four surviving 1215 Magna Cartas, is part of an interactive exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, U.K., on Feb. 27. (Kieran Doherty/Reuters)

In February, we learned that team leader and historian Nicholas Vincent had located another original Magna Carta, from 1300. It had been forgotten in an archived scrapbook belonging to the Sandwich, U.K town council.

Ambler says for the past three years or so, the government-funded project has been doing a huge amount of detailed research, leading to a much more complete picture of the context and events of 1215.

Take, for example, the negotiations between the King and his representatives and the rebel barons at Runnymede meadow. David Carpenter of the Magna Carta Project has been looking at the versions of Magna Carta copied into the monastic record by scribes at various monasteries.

By comparing those texts to the authentic Magna Carta, dated June 15, and a document called Articles of the Barons from five days previous, which could be considered the basis for negotiation at Runnymede, he has discovered that the monastic copies weren't made from the authentic text but from drafts of Magna Carta circulating at Runnymede.

Ambler says that makes it possible to now get a good sense of the points that were argued about at Runnymede.

Magna Carta on CBC Radio One

Panelists discuss Magna Carta at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto in May, for the CBC Radio program, Ideas. (Lisa Sakulensky)

"Much Ado about Magna Carta" was on CBC Radio's Ideas on June 15 and 16. The two programs discuss the meaning and relevance of the 800-year-old charter today.


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