Magna Carta, 800 years ago and today

By JubileeCentre 11 Mar 2015

11 March 2015


Winston Churchill planned to give one of four original copies of the Magna Carta to America to encourage them to join in the Second World War, government papers reveal.

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The ‘Great Charter’ was agreed by King John of England on 15 June 1215, and is widely held to be one of the first steps towards parliamentary democracy. It stipulated no one was considered above the law, including the King.

This guest post by historian and author Philip Quenby lists some of the reasons why the Magna Carta is still significant today.

  1. Our attention is being drawn to foundations. A stark picture of the state of the foundations of our Parliamentary democracy is presented by the news that the structure of the Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament) is sinking, with the result that MPs may have to move to a new location as early as next year. The repair bill is estimated at £3 billion.
  1. On 15 June 2015 we will mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, widely regarded as one of the key texts of the British Constitution and an essential guarantor of basic freedoms. It is vital that the Christian foundations of our nation should be recognised and re-affirmed during these celebrations.
  1. The Great Charter was largely the brainchild of Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, who based it on the so-called Coronation Charter issued by Henry I. The Coronation Charter had promised to abide by the laws of King Edward (by which it meant Edward the Confessor, the last Saxon king recognised by the Normans as a legitimate ruler). These laws incorporated earlier Saxon codes such as those of King Alfred, and so Magna Carta preserves a direct link to Saxon England.
  1. This is of profound importance for two reasons in particular. Firstly, Saxon legal codes made it clear that the king was subject to the law: by placing the ruler under the same constraints as everyone else, they carried within them the promise of rights for the common man and thus the germ of democracy. Secondly, the laws of King Alfred began by reciting the Ten Commandments and various other Old Testament laws. They therefore recognised that law is not simply what we choose to make it, but is answerable to a higher moral standard.
  1. Alfred’s laws made it clear that English law looked first and foremost to the Bible for its inspiration and this Saxon approach was carried over into the English common law which started to develop in a recognisably modern form under the circuit judges of Henry I. It was this heritage which allowed the renowned 18th century judge and legal theorist William Blackstone to write that “Any law that is contrary to the scripture is no law at all and not to be obeyed.”
  2. The common law’s insistence that a law should be judged not just by the formalities that have been gone through to create it but also by its moral content makes it fundamentally different from continental legal systems. Sadly, this legacy is increasingly under threat as English judges have in recent years said that Christianity has no place in English law. In doing so, they have turned their backs on a thousand years of history.
  1. Our foundations are under threat in other ways, too. There are suggestions that our constitutional patchwork of statute, case law and convention should be replaced by a written constitution, with the danger that much of value will be lost in the process.
  1. At the end of the English Civil War in the seventeenth century (a war that in large part was a fight over the legacy of Magna Carta), the victorious Parliamentary army was welcomed into London by a man carrying the Great Charter. Once again we need to remind ourselves about the foundations on which this nation has been built – something much older than Magna Carta and infinitely more precious and profound than any provisions dreamt up by man.

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