Happy 800th Birthday to the Magna Carta

June 17, 2015

web_magna-carta-bannerThe Magna Carta is a historic document every American should know about – not just those in the legal community. Granted by the king of England to a group of rebellious barons and signed over 800 years ago on June 15, 1215, the Magna Carta (Great Charter) is widely viewed by scholars, historians and the American legal community as one of the most important legal documents in history. Rebel nobles in England drafted the Magna Carta to curtail the power of the tyrannical King John. Signed in 1215, the Magna Carta ended the absolute power of English sovereigns.

The Magna Carta spells out the fundamental concept of protecting individual rights and freedoms. It inspired the writers of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and paved the way for America’s basic legal principles of due process, habeas corpus, the rights to a jury trial and a speedy trial.

The Magna Carta was celebrated at a conference this year, from June 11-15, at historic sites in London and Runnymede in Britain where the Magna Carta was sealed by King John 800 years ago. A newly refurbished American Bar Association Magna Carta memorial – a classic Greek structure erected in 1957- was also re-dedicated at this site. Accompanied by dignitaries including Princess Anne and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, ABA officials and hundreds of American lawyers who traveled to the United Kingdom for the conference, led the rededication.

ABA President William C. Hubbard said at the re-dedication, “The barons and King John could scarcely have imagined when they stood in this meadow 800 years ago today that the words to which they agreed would launch the progression of the rule of law. In this field were born precepts that made possible the United States Constitution, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the framework of justice in America, the United Kingdom, and much of the world.”

“We return to Runnymede today because the principles of Magna Carta define, and must continue to define, who we are and who we must be if we are to have justice and if we are to have peace in our world,” Hubbard said.

There’s no single, original copy of the Magna Carta. Multiple copies of the first Magna Carta (a sheet of parchment with approximately 3,600 words written in vegetable-based ink) were distributed to individual English county courts during the summer of 1215. Today, four of those copies survive. The British Museum has two and the other two are in the collections of the cathedrals at Salisbury and Lincoln.