Magna Carta - The World's Most Important Document?

2015 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta being sealed by King John. The event is being celebrated throughout Britain and many former British colonies because Magna Carta is said to be the basis of our laws and liberties. Considering those countries include the United States, India, Australia and Canada, it is not surprising that Magna Carta is often claimed to be the most important document in the world. We celebrated by investigating the claims.

It is a pretty convoluted story. One factor that doesn't help is that Magna Carta is not one document but six. The original is the one was indeed sealed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. It was re-issued in 1216, then again in 1217, 1225, 1297 and 1300. It is the 1297 version that passed into the English statute books, so we will only be looking at it and its predecessors. There are subtle changes between the versions - shown in Richard Cassidy's analysis here - although the key clauses that passed into English law are pretty consistent. Cassidy also created what we found to be really useful diagram showing the origin and subject of each of the clauses, which can be seen here.

'Magna Carta' is Latin for 'Great Charter'. Some historians refer to some or all of the later versions as 'the Great Charter', to differentiate them from the original. We will refer to the original as 'the Runnymede Magna Carta', to the 1297 version as 'the Great Charter' and to the others by their date; for example, 'the 1225 Magna Carta'. If the version does not matter, we will just refer to 'Magna Carta'.

Magna Carta's significance

Those that promote Magna Carta's importance reckon that it is the basis for national justice systems, legal due process, civil liberties and representative government for nearly half of the people on earth.

The superlatives were rolled out by Sotheby's when the only privately held Magna Carta engrossment came up for auction. Fiona Woolf MP said: "It is the single most important legal document in history. The foundation for global constitutions, commerce and communities. The anchor for the Rule of Law." Sotheby's said it was: "The first rung on the ladder to freedom. This document symbolises mankind’s eternal quest for freedom; it is a talisman of liberty". The New York Times: "It laid the foundation for fundamental principles of English law".

Detractors point out that King John soon reneged on his Runnymede Magna Carta commitments and that the Pope then annulled it. The key clauses that passed into English law, and thence around the world, were not from the Runnymede Magna Carta, but from the watered down 1297 version. Also, the Runnymede Magna Carta was not unprecedented. Anglo-Norman barons had made several previous attempts to curb sovereign powers. Many of Runnymede Magna Carta's key clauses were regurgitated from an earlier attempt known as the 'Articles of the Barons', much of which was based on the 'Unknown Charter', which was itself an extension of Henry I's 'Coronation Charter'. And, perhaps worst of all, subsequent English monarchs up to and including those of the House of Stewart only paid it lip service.

None of this really matters here. Our idea of momentousness means lasting impact. In this case it means the chains of influence that led to representative government, due process, civil liberty and the spectrum of world laws that derive from English common law. Our interest is in whether they lead back to Magna Carta in general and to Runnymede Magna Carta in particular.

Westminster is often referred to as the 'Mother of Parliaments'. Nearly all governments in mature countries have adopted the 'Westminster system', albeit usually modified in some way, to incorporate an elected Head of State, for instance. The Westminster system was developed for the Glorious Revolution, when leading English protestant politicians offered Dutchman William of Orange and his English wife Mary the crown of England, if they accepted the primacy of Parliament. That deal was embodied in the 1689 Bill of Rights.

The 1689 English Bill of Rights is based on Clause 29 in the 1297 Great Charter, only extended from landowners to include citizens. Clause 29 of the 1297 Great Charter was based on (and worded similarly to) Clauses 39 and 40 of the Runnymede Magna Carta. So, in our opinion, modern representative governments are indeed based on Magna Carta.

Clause 29 of the 1297 Magna Carta also defines what we would now refer to as legal due process, which has influenced the treatment of criminal defendants in English law ever since. Civil rights and due process, as defined in the Bill of Rights, diffused across the British Empire, and then to most of the developed world. It seems pretty conclusive to us that they too derive from the Magna Carta.

English common law also diffused out to the world during the days of Empire. The system is based on legal precedent. Magna Carta acts as the original English statute at which chains of precedent end. It is not that modern laws are based on Magna Carta, although there are still a couple of clauses that have not yet been repealed, but that the system of legal precedents leads back to Magna Carta. This means, for instance, that there are no laws in England or other common law countries that date back beyond Runnymede Magna Carta. Again, it seems pretty conclusive to us that common law systems use the Runnymede Magna Carta as their base.

This is not to deny the knockers. The important clauses in the Runnymede Magna Carta do pre-date 1215, but they were previously only in lists of demands made by barons on their King. Doubtless similar demands had been made on kings since time immemorial. Runnymede Magna Carta is different, in part because it is an agreed contract, and in part because it has a method to police the liberties it assigns. This was not enough to make it an immediate success. King John soon reneged on his commitments. This is not unusual when privileges pass from one group to another. Early abolitionists, suffragists and anti-apartheid reformers suffered similar setbacks. They persevered with a righteous cause and won out in the end. The same with Magna Carta. The English barons repeatedly re-issued Magna Carta with minor modifications to John's heirs, until Edward I accepted the 1297 Great Charter, in exchange for greater tax raising powers. He even abided by it sometimes.

This is not to say that the Plantagenet kings, or their Tudor and Stuart successors, paid much attention to Magna Carta's curbs on their power. They didn't. But at the end of the 17th century, when John Locke and 'The Immortal Seven' were arguing for greater civil liberties and the primacy of Parliament, it was easier to hang their hats on existing Magna Carta based laws that had already been agreed by previous Kings than to force James II and his heirs to accept new laws. The 1215 Anglo-Norman barons, after all, had much the same problem with King John that the English Parliamentarians had with James II. Magna Carta listed many of the same demands.

Magna Carta's primacy is tied to the accession of Mary II. The Protestant majority English parliament put up with her father, the Catholic King James II/VII, because his heir apparent was the staunchly Protestant Mary. But in 1688 James had a Catholic son, James Francis Edward, who took over as heir. Parliament, worried about a Catholic dynasty, effectively offered the crown to Mary and her Dutch husband William, if they accepted the primacy of parliament and some futher curbs on their power, as embodied by Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights. They accepted. They had no children. Nor did their successor Anne. George I did not speak English and spent very little time in England. Much the same with George II. Neither of them cared much about restoring royal powers anyway. By the time George III came to power the die was cast. The unrepealed parts of Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights effectively became the English constitution.

So, is the Runnymede Magna Carta the most important document in human history? Well, assuming that religious texts are deemed books rather than documents, then perhaps so. It is certainly the most momentous because nearly all the other important non-religious documents are based on it. 

Magna Carta at Runnymede

Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede. It says so in the text of the manuscript. Momentous Britain grew up a mile or so away in Datchet. We used to cycle through Runnymede on our way to the ABC Cinema in Staines for Saturday morning pictures. It had virtually nothing related to Magna Carta in those days. Little has changed. The British are famous for understatement, but Runnymede takes the biscuit.

We returned to Runnymede for the 800th anniverary, approaching from the M25 junction to the south. The first thing of interest is a pair of octagonal kiosks, either side of the A308. We parked in the Runnymede Hotel to study them closer. Each kiosk stands beside a Portland stone pillar topped by an urn. According to the inscription on the pillars, they were commissioned by Lady Fairhaven as a memorial to her late husband Urban Broughton MP. It is she that bought the land when the cash-strapped Government decided to sell it off for redevelopment, and she that gifted the land to the nation in 1931.

The inscription says that the kiosks were designed by Sir Edward Lutyens. Anything to do with Lutyens is nostalgic for us because we once worked in the Lutyens designed Reuters building at 85 Fleet Street. These kiosks are not quite as grand, but we wouldn't mind living in one. We couldn't work out their purpose. Perhaps no else knows what to do with them either. They look sad and neglected.

We drove through the park towards Old Windsor, parking in the National Trust car park at the northern entrance. Parking is free for NT members if, unlike us, you remember to take your NT card. The road cuts between two lodges and two more pillars topped with an urn. All these were also designed by Lutyens. The lodge near the river is used as an office. The one by the car park is a National Trust tea shop.

The lodges have some typical Lutyens features: red brick and white stone construction; steeply angled roofs; oversize false chimneys; no gutters or downpipes. Rain water does not just get dumped on the ground, but drops elegantly like a waterfall into a brick gulley that surrounds each lodge. It is a nice technique that should be used more.

There are only three Magna Carta related attractions at Runnymede, all of which are modern and accessed across the meadow south of the Tea Room. It is worth noting in advance then that Runnymede is a water-meadow, in the loose sense of the term, meaning that it is on the water table. It is prone to flooding in winter and boggy most other times. Walking boots or wellies are advisible.

The first attraction encountered heading south from the NT car park is a sculpture of 12 bronze chairs named 'The Jurors' by Hew Locke. Each chair is intricately sculpted and different. Each design is supposed to exemplify themes from Magna Carta ... so we bet that Locke is regretting his decision to feature Aung San Suu Kyi on one of them. We especially like that the chairs are designed to be sat on by visitors. Cynics that we are, we got the impression the design was mainly to appeal to the maximum number of foreign tourist nationalities. Still, we enjoyed it. We worry about its future. Not because it is likely to get stolen: the chairs are firmly attached to something under the ground. But because it is liable to get vandalised or sink. Enjoy it while you can.

A hundred metres west of The Jurors - i.e. towards Coopers Hill - is the American Bar Association's Magna Carta memorial. It looks rather incongruous to us, although not as incongruous as the paving stones engraved with the sponsors' names on the access path. We shouldn't quibble. Before the anniversary this was the only Magna Carta related attraction in whole of Runnymede.

At least the ABA Memorial has a paved access path. Five hundred metres south is the new 'Writ in Water' memorial which is accessed along a mud-slide after crossing a bog. It is two concentric fake-stone circles with opposing entrances, an open roof and a pool in the middle. The title is taken from John Keats' headstone. A translation of Magna Carta clauses 39 and 40 has been inscribed upside-down onto a circular metal rim around the pool, in such as way that its reflection can be read on the water surface; hence it is 'writ in water'. The surface was completely covered in swimming ladybirds when we were there, so there was no reflection.

'Writ in Water' is a nice idea, but looks to have been done on the cheap. The walls are coarse concrete. The floor is loose stones. The pipework has not been hidden. The benches are uncomfortable and liable to ladder tights or stockings (or, at least, so we heard a girl complain in the tea shop). 'Writ in Water' is only three years old but, like everything at Runnymede, it looks unloved and uncared for. No one else visited it during the two hours we were there. The spring had fallen off the gate. The water was black, smelly and gungy. Birds were roosting in the roof and emptying themselves on the bench. Doubtless the artist, Mark Wallinger, is delighted by its quick assimilation into nature, but it gives us the impression of negligence and cost cutting. 

And that's it. Considering, for example, that the National Trust spent £50m restoring Stowe House, their treatment of Runnymede is shameful. Indeed, were it not for the 800th anniversary, their total spending on Magna Carta would have been close to zero. There is not even a path across the boggy field to get to the ABA memorial and the gate is usually shin deep in mud. The Lutyens Trust say they will submit a Lottery bid to create a proper visitor centre. Anything would be an improvement, but we cannot understand why it has been left to them. Runnymede is one of the few places in Britain outside London that has global interest. It is far more important than Stowe House, The Vyne or anywhere else that has been restored recently. In our opinion, the National Trust or English Heritage should be more assertive and invest commensurately.

While you are in Runnymede ...

Before leaving Runnymede, it would be a shame not to check out the Kennedy Memorial. Thankfully it is a little higher than the other attractions with a solid dry access path.

The Historic England listing says: "The memorial is representative of the trend from the 1960s towards simple slabs with beautifully carved lettering. But this example is more, demonstrating the perfect integration of architecture with landscape." Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe says he based the design on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which is an allegory of life as a journey. Jellicoe says that the Kennedy Memorial is: "intended to be seen as a point in a journey through the landscape". Hmm.

We do sort of get it. The access path - apparently made of 60,000 granite setts - winds its way sinuously up through the woods opening out into a lovely glade that contains the inscribed stone and a majestic American Scarlet Oak. Our problem is with the stone. The inscription extends right to the edge with no bleed, which makes it look a mess. It gives the impression that they started the engraving in an overlarge font, but didn't realise until they were half way down, then had to compress the rest in ever smaller fonts to fit it all in. Moreover, the stone itself is not a single block of Portland stone as you might expect, but a hotchpotch of different stones that seem to have been glued together. To our eye it looks slipshod and inappropriately cheap. Again, we shouldn't quibble. The Runnymede Kennedy Memorial is enormously better than the horrid concrete Kennedy memorial they have in Dallas, which looks like a hoarding around a giant public urinal.

If you have time, the Air Forces Memorial is on the top of Coopers Hill. We walked up the footpath from near 'Writ in Water' (... it would have been a lot easier to drive, but we were on the trail of a particularly tricky Geocache). The memorial is spotlessly clean and serenely peaceful, with lovely views of Windsor to the west and London to the east. When we say peaceful, we mean apart from the planes that pass over every few minutes. Presumably the location was specifically chosen to be under the Heathrow flight path. We gather from Wikipedia that the memorial commemorates more than 20,000 Commonwealth airmen (and a few women) that do not have graves elsewhere. It is frustrating that there is not more information about all this inside. It is almost as if they want to discourage visitors.

Ankerwycke, where Magna Carta was really sealed

We grew up in Datchet on the north bank of the Thames. According to local village lore, Magna Carta was sealed just down the road at Wraysbury, rather than over the river at Runnymede. Of course, that lore might have been invented by estate agents to boost house prices, because it contradicts the text inside the 1215 Magna Carta. But we doubt it. We worked out the probable solution to this connundrum forty years ago. Let us explain.

It is thought that the name Runnymede derives from the Saxon words 'runieg', meaning meeting place, and 'mede', meaning meadow. No one would have regular meetings on a water-meadow that flooded regularly. If there was a Saxon meeting place beside this stretch of the Thames, we think it was on higher ground. There is only one area of higher ground close to the river. It is the ridge around St Mary Priory in Ankerwycke, now subsumed into Wraysbury.

We hear that the National Trust might be building a walkway across the Thames to join Runnymede and Ankerwyke. It is not there yet, so we drove around via Old Windsor to check it out. Happily the land around Anckerwyke is relatively unspoilt despite having only been gifted to the nation a few years since. It is also managed by the National Trust. There is a small National Trust car park on Magna Carta Lane (no obvious indication from the main road). Access to the priory is through the gate opposite the car park, then south across boggy fields and right onto a bridleway. The priory ruins are at the end of the bridleway.

20m away is the magnificent Ankerwycke Yew surrounded by benches. This tree is probably 2500-years-old. It is one of the '50 Great British Trees', as designated by 'The Tree Council', and among the healthiest. It looks as if it will live for at least another 1000 years.

St Mary Priory and the Ankerwycke Yew stand on a ridge two or three metres above the river level; not enough to appear on OS contour maps, but enough to keep them above the water table and flood water. They are on an island now, with the Thames flowing to the south and east, and a water filled ditch bordering the north and west.

The ditch looks to us like a former river valley. If so, it is possible that the Thames used to flow north of Anckerwyke. This is one plausible answer to the apparent contradiction between Datchet lore that it was sealed at Wraysbury and the Magna Carta saying that it was sealed at Runnymede: the part of Wraysbury where the original Magna Carta was sealed was an area of Runnymede at the time.

There is at least one other plausible explanation. Land belonging to the Church was generally excluded from the feudal system, presumably because it was bad form to be seen thieving from God. If Magna Carta was sealed on land belonging to St Mary Priory, it is feasible that its location was described as that of the nearest manor. The nearest manor would have been Runnymede.

As far as we know, there is no evidence that Magna Carta was sealed at what is now Runneymede. There is some circumstantial evidence that it was sealed at St Mary's Priory. For one thing, it seems to have been unusually prestigious for a tiny priory housing eight nuns. Its prioresses came from some of the most noble families in England. It is roughly halfway between Windsor and Staines, which is where Magna Carta describes the meeting place. It would have been an obvious landmark for river-bourne visitors. It was surrounded by flat boggy water-meadow for at least 1000m in every land direction. It would have been too boggy to support mounted horses. If one side tried a mounted attack, the other side would see them coming and row to safety.

Finally, the island upon which St Mary Priory now stands is named 'Magna Carta Island'. It seems to have had the name for as long as maps have existed. This is difficult to explain if Magna Carta was sealed on the other side of the river.

Magna Carta manuscripts

There are five versions of Magna Carta: 1215, 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297. Each was copied and sent to cathedrals and other institutions to be enacted and/or displayed. Historians categorise medieval charters as engrossments or copies. The former are made to be sealed, whereas the latter are not. The copies typically use lower quality materials and might be split over multiple sheets. There might also be an awful lot of them. We are only interested in the engrossments.

There are 17 surviving Magna Carta engrossments: four of the 1215, one of the 1216, four of the 1217, four of the 1225 and four of the 1297. The best preserved of the 1215 is at Salisbury Cathedral. Two more, one of which is in distressed condition, are at the British Library. The fourth belongs to Lincoln Cathedral, although it is usually on display in Lincoln Castle and reguarly gets loaned out. The only surviving 1216 is at Durham Cathedral. The Bodleian Library in Oxford has three 1217s and one 1225. The other 1217 is usually at Hereford Cathedral, but on a global tour as we write. The other three 1225s are at the National Archives in Kew, Durham Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral. The four 1297s are at the National Archives in Kew, the London Metropolitan Archive, the Australian Parliament in Canberra and at the National Archive in Washington DC.

We tried to see all the engrossments - bar the two held abroad - during 2015 when they were all on display, but never got to Hereford, Lincoln or Durham. It was not as bad as it might seem because all four of the 1215 engrossments were on display at the British Library in 2015. Hopefully we will see those we missed soon (edit: someone tried to thieve the Salisbury engrossment in 2018, so we will have to wait). When we get around to seeing all the engrossments in their normal displays, we will report on the visitor experience.

Several associated documents are mentioned above. We wanted to see them too. The 'Articles of the Barons' is held by the British Library where it is sometimes on display. The 'Unknown Charter' is held by the French National Archive. We have never seen it and don't know whether it is ever on display. The 1689 Bill of Rights is held by the Parliamentary Archives at Westminster. As far as we know, it is not on display. The original Coronation Charter is lost, but a 13th century copy is held at the British Library. It is sometimes on display.