The Sunday Magazine

Happy birthday, Magna Carta!

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta on the fields of Runnymede, by King John of England. To mark the occasion, a series of commemorative lectures, tours, books and debates are underway both here and in England. Historian Carolyn Harris tells Michael how the Magna Carta came into existence, and why it still matters to this day. She is the author of the upcoming book Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights.
Romanticised 19th-century recreation of King John signing the Magna Carta, by James William Edmund Doyle (1864) (Public Domain)

The royal showdown took place on the fields of Runnymede near Windsor Castle in June, 1215. A group of angry British barons forced the King of England to sign the Magna Carta -- or "Great Charter." It was an attempt to limit the power of King John and to prevent him from abusing his peoples.

Some of those rules are basic to what most of us understand as principles of fundamental justice, like the idea that no one is above the law. Or that everyone should be free from unlawful detention. Or that if you are accused of a crime, you have the right to be tried by a jury of your peers.

Without the Magna Carta, there would be no United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no Constitution of the United States, no Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In this 800th anniversary year, there are hundreds of Magna Carta events planned. In England, the celebrations have already begun, with academic lectures, conferences and exhibitions -- even a Magna Carta tourism trail.

In Canada, a not-for-profit organization called Magna Carta Canada is also planning a series of events, including a cross-country trek with an original copy of the Magna Carta

Historian Carolyn Harris

Carolyn Harris is a historian who teaches at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. In partnership with Magna Carta Canada, she has written a book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights. It will be published this spring to coincide with the anniversary.


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