May 01, 2015

Magna Carta: Foundation of Freedom (Introduction)

Nicholas Vincent
From Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215–2015, Chapter 1

The greatest constitutional document of all times—the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.

Lord Denning (1899–1999)

Magna Carta is the most famous document in the history of England, perhaps in the history of the world. It has been cited in parliamentary, congressional and constitutional debates more frequently than any other text, save only for the Christian Bible. Written on a single sheet of parchment and proclaimed under the authority and seal of England’s King John, it sets out in roughly 3,500 words of medieval Latin a programme for the reform of English government. Issued in 1215, reissued in 1216, 1217 and 1225, this programme very swiftly came to be identified as a guarantee of “liberty.” By 1218, it was being described as the “Great” Magna Charter. By 1279, when the archbishop of Canterbury demanded that a copy of it be publicly displayed and annually renewed in every major English church, it already enjoyed totemic status. It played a part in the constitutional struggles of the later Middle Ages. Thereafter, it survived to be cited as a touchstone of “liberty” in the great quarrels between King and Parliament, in the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, and again in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. By modern commentators it has been credited with placing England’s sovereigns, and by extension the rulers of all states governed according to English legal tradition, under the “rule of law.”

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