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Magna Carta: Evolution and Emblem

Magna Carta, British Library, image © Joseph Turp

Magna Carta, British Library, image © Joseph Turp

Erwin N Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law School, perhaps best alluded to the place of the Magna Carta in contemporary thought when he noted in 1965 that it ‘is not primarily significant for what it was but rather for what it was made to be’.

The evolution of this most famous of documents from a means to restore peace to a country on the brink of civil war to a totem synonymous with the entrenchment of civil liberties and the limitation of oppressive power is a remarkable one. Its significance as the basis for constitutions and human rights acts which shape the modern world ensures its continued relevance. On the site of the signing of the original charter, numerous monuments given by nations around the world – including a plaque laid by the Prime Minister of India and an impressive rotunda erected by the American Bar Association – attest its international importance.

The nascence of this potent emblem of freedom and equality was comparatively mundane, taking place as it did in a then-unremarkable field in Surrey as a practical measure to reconcile an unpopular king with his rebellious barons. One of Britain’s most controversial monarchs, King John inspired revolt through numerous expensive and unsuccessful wars, brutal taxation and a ruling principle of vis et voluntas (force or will). By 1215, the rebel barons had renounced their oaths of allegiance to the king, captured the City of London and forced John to negotiate a charter of liberties. The two sides met at Runnymede, where the rebels presented John with their ‘Articles of the Barons’, which became the basis for the Magna Carta.

Although this new charter succeeded in reconciling the barons and the king in the short-term, it was annulled by Pope Innocent III that very same year in a papal bull which described it as ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people’.

However unlikely a symbol of democracy such a failure of a treaty might seem to be, the idea of having compelled a ruler who deemed himself to be above the law to agree to terms concerning the freedoms of his people proved powerful and indelible. The third of three clauses of the Magna Carta which remain part of English law today holds a particularly enduring resonance: ‘To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.’ It is on such articles of the original charter that 800 years of Acts, Declarations and Constitutions have been built, and explains why the Magna Carta remains an important analogue for the triumph of individual liberties over oppressive rule.


John Pine, Magna Carta, London: 1733, £22,500

This facsimile copy of the original Magna Carta document is the work of John Pine, printed in 1733 on vellum. Pine – engraver, publisher, print- and mapseller, Bluemantle Pursuivant at the College of Arms, and Engraver to the King’s Signet and Stamp Office – embellished this copy with the heraldry of the rebellious barons who impelled King John to sign the charter in 1215.

A later paper version was issued by Pine’s son, Robert Edge Pine some 50 years later, as a celebration of the success of the American Revolution. It is significant that Pine associated the Magna Carta so strongly with American independence and the genesis of the Constitution at this time; the publication of the facsimile was his parting action before he left Britain to become a significant portrait Artist in America. His subjects included George Washington and a large canvas entitled Congress Voting Independence.

Robert Edge Pine - Historical Society of Pennsylvania, via Explore PA History, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083850

Robert Edge Pine, Congress Voting Independence, c. 1784 – 1788. Historical Society of Pennsylvania, via Explore PA History, Public Domain

The Magna Carta was introduced to America through Sir Edward Coke’s interpretation of its clauses in the Royal Charter of the Virginia Company in 1606, it became entrenched in American law-making: Thomas Paine’s call for a Continental Charter in Common Sense alludes to it; Thomas Jefferson made a pilgrimage to visit it at the British Museum on his only visit to London in 1786; the revolutionary seal for Massachusetts engraved by Paul Revere in 1775 represents a militiaman with a drawn sword in his right hand and the scroll of Magna Carta in his left, and in 1779 John Adams invoked its spirit when he called for a ‘a government of laws, and not of men’.

BLACKSTONE, William. The Great Charter and Charter of the Forest, 1759 £15,000

William Blackstone, The Great Charter and Charter of the Forest, Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1759, £15,000

This volume, by lawyer and historian Robert Blackstone, traces the history of the Magna Carta, from the 1215 Articles of the Barons to the confirmation of the charter by King Edward I in 1300. An important work of historical scholarship, Blackstone included the texts of fourteen historical documents relating to the original charter, including the Charter of the Forest. His work is credited with having established the basis for Magna Carta scholarship, and with establishing the existence of ‘The First Great Charter of Henry III’, previously unknown to historians. This copy includes a reproduction of Pine’s facsimilie of the Charter, and it was on this version of the text that Blackstone based his researches.

The abiding relevance of the Magna Carta to contemporary society and continued interest in its story is attested to by last year’s extensive celebrations of its 800th anniversary, notably those arranged by the British Library. It is a remarkable historical document in that the ideas of humanitarianism and freedom that have been inspired by it have far exceeded its original purpose or substance. However much the majority of its original clauses may been amended, repealed and ultimately discarded, the ideals it has come to stand for – individual rights, the curbing of authoritarian power and the right to equality before the law – are as important globally today as they were in medieval England.


Senior Rare Book Specialist Adam Douglas on John Pine’s 1733 facsimile of the Magna Carta:


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