June-15: Magna Carta Turns 800

Today’s 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede was celebrated across the globe.

As summarized by the BBC:

  • The Magna Carta outlined basic rights with the principle that no-one was above the law, including the king
  • It charted the right to a fair trial, and limits on taxation without representation
  • It inspired a number of other documents, including the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Only three clauses are still valid – the one guaranteeing the liberties of the English Church; the clause confirming the privileges of the City of London and other towns; and the clause that states that no free man shall be imprisoned without the lawful judgement of his equals

Although, the celebration was not without its critics, such as Tom Ginsburg’s New York Times piece Stop Revering the Magna Carta.  The Atlantic highlighted some of its more obscure provisions such as “If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it.”​

These lines lack something of the timeless tenor of “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” And that’s by design. The barons who drafted the Magna Carta in 1215 weren’t, in the main, revolutionaries proclaiming a new political system and establishing its dimensions for posterity. They were aristocratic rebels who felt King John had abused his rights under the existing feudal system as he waged war with France (and with the barons themselves). They were champions of the status quo ante, advocating innovative, enforceable solutions to rein in the crown.

Below are two amusing takes on this notable anniversary.


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