Celebrating the Magna Carta

Revered historic document on display in Canada
June 30, 2015 Updated: July 19, 2015
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The Magna Carta, the most important instrument of English constitutional history, turns 800 this year. The famed document, issued by King John at Runnymede under the compulsion of his barons in 1215, is recognized for having set the groundwork for democracy, justice, and human rights.

The document currently on exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau is the best-preserved of seven surviving copies issued by King Edward I in 1300, along with its companion document, the Charter of the Forest. Both are on loan from Durham Cathedral.

The Magna Carta, meaning “Great Charter” in Latin, was the first document in English jurisprudence to state that the monarch was not above the law.

These frail yet magnificent documents are on view until July 26 in Gatineau. After that, the exhibit, titled “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy,” will be shown in Winnipeg, Toronto, and Edmonton.

The Magna Carta, meaning “Great Charter” in Latin, was the first document in English jurisprudence to state that the monarch was not above the law. It was groundbreaking in that it sought to establish protections for the common man—not just the privileged elite.

The Charter’s Origins

The 1300 Magna Carta, written on parchment, begins with a decorated initial
The 1300 Magna Carta, written on parchment, begins with a decorated initial “E” (for Edward I or Edward Longshanks, son of Henry III), with Edward’s seal in natural wax on the bottom. (Chapter of Durham Cathedral)

Apparently King John, due to his continual extortions of money and his violations of feudal customs, had angered not only the barons but also many of the lesser gentry, the knights, and the townspeople.

In addition, a large group of church leaders, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, opposed the King, even after his reconciliation with the pope. An uprising from 1213 to 1215 was dominated by the barons but approved by practically everyone as there was a national reaction to John’s behaviour.

The King was, therefore, compelled to enter into talks with the barons, which took place at Runnymede. After several attempts at evasion, John set his seal on a preliminary draft of demands presented by the barons. A compromise was eventually reached on June 19, 1215, and the resulting document was put forth in the form of a charter freely granted by King John, though in actual fact the guarantees were extorted by the barons.

Celebrations in England

Edward I's seal in natural wax on the 1300 Magna Carta. (Chapter of Durham Cathedral)
Edward I’s seal in natural wax on the 1300 Magna Carta. (Chapter of Durham Cathedral)

In England, the charter’s 800th anniversary was celebrated with great pomp and ceremony.

One of the events included a flotilla of boats floating up the River Thames on June 13 and 14. It was led by the elaborately ornate “Gloriana,” the official rowbarge of Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II.

The boats assembled on the Thames, then went upriver from the village of Hurley to Runnymede, practically synonymous with the words “Magna Carta.” In a riverside ceremony on June 15, the Queen attended the unveiling of a bronze statue of herself dressed in full ceremonial attire of the Order of the Garter.

There were several versions of the charter, the first dating from 1215. The best-preserved original copy can be found at Salisbury Cathedral. It served as a blueprint for the U.S. Constitution.

As Winston Churchill said: “Here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break.”

Sponsored by Magna Carta Canada, the exhibit will be on view at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg from Aug. 15 to Sept. 18; at the Fort York National Historic Site in Toronto from Oct. 4 to Nov. 7; and at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta Visitor Centre in Edmonton from Nov. 23 to Dec. 29. For more information, visit: www.magnacartacanada.ca

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings and Doctor’s Review, among others. Email: hallett_susan@hotmail.com