Celebrating the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta
“How often can one do something that they know is historical at the very moment in which it is being done? Not very often.” That was my line of reasoning to my husband last summer when I discovered that there would be a huge celebration at Runnymede in June 2015 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. I soon learned that the ABA would be hosting a conference in London in honor of the anniversary. Conference registration was almost $1500 which would be held mostly in free venues that any citizen or tourist from anywhere in the world could walk into and see for free. Clearly I was going to have my own Magna Carta experience and it’s been quite a Magna Carta year.
In fall, shortly after deciding to go to England, I was invited to be the Utah County Chair of the Utah State Bar Magna Carta Celebration. Randall Jeffs, Jeffs & Jeffs, and Reed Park, Nebo School District, were also on the committee. We were tasked with hosting an exhibit at Utah Valley University for two days in April.
In February, Utah Valley University Professor and Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies, Rick Griffin, hosted a 3-day Magna Carta Conference. Three Magna Carta experts— Nicolas Vincent and Sophia Ambler, University of East Anglia, and Louise Wilkinson, Canterbury Christ Church University—came from England to present on various issues related to Magna Carta, as well as historian Gordon Wood, Pulitzer Prize winner, and BYU Law Professor Fred Gedicks.
The Utah Bar made arrangements with the ABA to have an all-state tour of the 16-panel exhibit which was very well done. Richard Dibblee, Associate Director of the Utah Bar, accompanied the exhibit from St. George to Logan and around the state for 2 ½ weeks. Thousands of people around the state viewed the exhibit. A video from the Library of Congress explaining their Magna Carta Exhibit traveled with the beautiful panels as well. The video can be seen at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ymt7SE27wcY. Here are pictures of three of them:
The Signing of the Magna Carta
Runnymede is a very peaceful meadow. The violence that had occurred in London which threatened King John’s life is now lost in the verdant green, the chirping of the birds, and the slow running of the narrow Thames. One could question how such a peaceful meadow could have hosted the events of 1215 that have come to be known as the foundation of modern democracy.
It is commonly observed that citizens of the UK have been less impressed with the Magna Carta and its origins, taking its existence for granted, while Americans built the only memorial to Magna Carta in 1957. Although plaques have been placed at that memorial by the British in the subsequent years, this year is the first time that the citizens of the UK have their own memorial, The Jurors, created by artist, Hew Locke. Each of the twelve chairs, sitting in the middle of the meadow, with no table associated with them, depicts various aspects of freedom that emanate from the ideas of freedom, liberty, and rights that individuals have. A full explanation of each chair’s theme can be found at: http://artatrunnymede.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/The-Jurors-leaflet1.pdf.
Our Visit to Salisbury Cathedral
We traveled to Salisbury Cathedral to see the copy on parchment of the Magna Carta. It was being shown in a cubicle that shrouded it from the damaging light. The cathedral had held their copy since 1215, when they first received it. The BBC was there interviewing the cathedral visitors and I was interviewed for coming from America to see the Magna Carta. Just before the celebration it was announced that researchers had been able to identify some of the scribes and where they worked who had handwritten the existing versions of the document. You can see a video made by those at Salisbury here:
Our Visit to the British Library
We then went into London to see the two copies of the Magna Carta that are housed at the British Library. There is an excellent exhibit, which is scheduled until September, dedicated to the past and present of how Magna Carta has affected English law and the systems of law around the world. You can see and read all about it here: http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/800th-anniversary-programme.
Our Visit to the Lincoln Cathedral
The most challenging version of the four existing 1215 Magna Carta’s in existence is housed at the Lincoln Cathedral, in Lincolnshire, almost 160 miles north of London. We had traveled to Leeds to see university colleagues and drove east and south to Lincoln, a very English town surrounded by farms. There is an exhibit on the grounds of Lincoln Castle, housed in what was once a prison, which is now restored. Another video about the origins of Magna Carta can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKO-It5PflQ.
The Canterbury Cathedral Copy
The Canterbury Cathedral version of Magna Carta is currently housed in the British Library. It is the only remaining parchment that still has the seal of King John attached. The others have lost their seals over the years.
What Does the Magna Carta Say?
The British Library exhibit explains that “Only three of the original clauses to which King John acquiesced remain part of English law today. One defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
This clause gave all free men the right to justice and a fair trial. However, ‘free men’ comprised only a small proportion of the population in medieval England. The majority of the people were unfree peasants … who could seek justice only through the courts of their own lords.
Buried deep in Magna Carta, this clause was given no particular prominence in 1215, but its intrinsic adaptability has allowed succeeding generations to reinterpret it for their own purposes. In the 14th century, Parliament saw it as guaranteeing trial by jury; in the 17th century, Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) interpreted it as a declaration of individual liberty in his conflict with the early Stuart kings; and it has echoes in the American Bill of Rights (1791) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
Much of the remainder of Magna Carta dealt with specific grievances regarding the ownership of land, the regulation of the justice system, and medieval taxes with no modern equivalent… It demanded the removal of fish weirs (an obstruction placed in tidal waters, or wholly or partially across a river, to direct the passage of fish) from the Thames, the Medway and throughout England; the dismissal of several royal servants; and the standardization of various weights and measures; and so on.
Magna Carta stated that no taxes could be demanded without the ‘general consent of the realm,’ meaning the leading barons and churchmen. It reestablished privileges which had been lost and linked fines to the severity of the offence so as not to threaten an individual’s livelihood. It also confirmed that a widow could not be forced to remarry against her wishes.”
Magna Carta Celebrations
Many celebrations in towns across England were held. A flotilla of over 200 boats sailed down the Thames from Windsor Castle to Runnymede on Sunday, June 14th. The Queen’s barge, the Gloriana, led the flotilla which passed through three locks along the way. A new statue of Queen Elizabeth, the longest reigning monarch in the history of England, was also unveiled at Runnymede.
Additional Magna Carta Resources:
There are so many resources to learn about the meaning and impact of the 1215 Magna Carta. Here are some of them:
BBC Radio 4 Four-Part Series: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04y6wdt
By Eileen Doyle Crane, JRCLS Leadership Team Vice-Chair
Posted: July 7, 2015