The Magna Carta – The Birth of Modern Democracies?

The Magna Carta, sealed in 1215, Latin for “The Great Charter”, was deemed as one of the first steps towards democracy in the Kingdom of England. It established the principle that no-one was above the law, not even the monarch. It was the first document to guarantee the rights of justice to individuals, and the important right to a fair trial. While the latter principle is often a reoccurring factor in many modern court cases, it is now defined under Article Six of the European Convention of Human Rights (1998).

king john

The signing of the Magna Carta in Runnymede, 1215. THINKSTOCK

Upon its introduction, The Charter was ratified after being sealed by the unpopular King John. It was a result of pressure on the King from his Barons who didn’t take kindly to him overruling their every action and opposed his continuation of the flawed conquest of France, where he was continuously losing territory which his brother, King Richard “The Lionheart”, had seized in earlier wars. However, the document was to be in effect for less than three months, when King John defied it, using the justification: “My seal was stolen, I did not seal it”, sparking war between John and his Barons. But upon John’s death from dysentery, his son Henry III was crowned King, and on reaching adulthood in 1227, Henry III reissued a shorter version of the Magna Carta, which was the first to become part of English Law. Henry decreed that all future charters must be issued under the King’s seal and between the 13th and 15th centuries the Magna Carta is said to have been reconfirmed between 32 and 45 times, having last been confirmed by Henry VI in 1423.

The Magna Carta in a Modern Era

The influence of the Magna Carta has been great in the modern era, despite it having little power initially. Magna Carta Day has become an annual event in the Borough of Runnymede, Surrey, where the document was sealed over eight hundred years ago. This occasion is primarily a charity event, where numerous stalls are erected and performances given. With a statue of Queen Elizabeth II being erected, as well as the twelve chairs put in place in 2015 to show where the Magna Carta was sealed, it is clear that the nation values this document to a substantial extent. Though not strictly enforced today, the Great Charter, proves itself to be of great cultural value, and its principles applied in other areas of the modern law.

magna carta chairs

In 2015 chairs were erected near the site where the Magna Carta was signed to commemorate its 800th birthday.

Its influence also seems to have crossed the Atlantic, with the US constitution borrowing heavily from it. Eighteenth century Americans widely saw the document as the reassertion of individual rights against a tyrannical oppressor, which they thought was symbolic of their recent break from the United Kingdom as one of their many colonies. Both the state declarations of rights and the United States Bill of Rights incorporated several guarantees that were understood at the time of their ratification to descend from rights protected by Magna Carta.

The Bar Council of the USA felt that the Magna Carta was such an important aspect of the US Constitution – through its promotion of fair trials, judicial reviews by countrymen and the likes – that they attended an event in 2014 hosted at 10 Downing Street by then Prime Minister David Cameron to commemorate the Charter’s almost eight-hundred-year anniversary by putting its significance into words.

Its significance, then, is considerable. The document inspired the foundation of a nation that is heralded as one of the most progressive in the world, which quickly rose to the status of “superpower”, above its former oppressor and now ally, Great Britain. Given the fact that the Magna Carta was merely a temporary bargaining chip for King John against his Barons when it was written, it could be said that the principles of the Magna Carta didn’t really take effect until he died and it was properly imposed, with subsequent Monarchs expanding the Charter. But it’s prominence then peaked after Americans claimed independence to form the United States of America, which has since taken the world to new perspectives which have, arguably, changed mankind irreversibly.

References:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/magna-carta-what-is-it-and-why-is-it-still-important-today-10017258.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/magna_01.shtml

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/magna-carta-muse-and-mentor/magna-carta-and-the-us-constitution.html

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/the-origins-of-the-magna-carta/

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2 thoughts on “The Magna Carta – The Birth of Modern Democracies?

  1. Pingback: The French Revolution: The Bloodied Key to Modern Politics | The FeedBack

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