Celebrating the birth (and death) of Magna Carta


On the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, James Melton reflects on the strength and influence of the legal document, but also its weaknesses and negative aspects.

This article is based on a new volume co-edited by Robert Hazell and James Melton Magna Carta and Its Modern Legacy.

Today Magna Carta (1215) celebrates its 800th birthday. We celebrate this historic event for two reasons. First, the Great Charter is one of the oldest in force legal documents in the world, as four lines from the original charter are still on the statute books in the United Kingdom. Second, and more importantly, Magna Carta has become a symbol of limited government that is recognised all over the world. However, when celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta’s birth, one should not forget about the 800th anniversary of its death on 24 August 2015. Magna Carta (2015) died when it was annulled by Pope Innocent III, just two months and nine days after it was sealed. The Great Charter was subsequently amended and reissued in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297, but its early death serves as a reminder that, in 1215, Magna Carta was a failure. It was completely ignored by King John and, ultimately, led England into the very civil war which it was meant to prevent.

In our new volume, Magna Carta and Its Modern Legacy, Robert Hazell and I have put together a collection of essays that both commemorate Magna Carta’s 800 year history and provide a balanced assessment of the Great Charter’s legacy. The volume is divided into three sections: 1) Magna Carta’s influence in the UK, 2) its influence abroad and 3) 21st century reflection on Magna Carta. While the scholars who have contributed to our volume all recognize the symbolic importance of Magna Carta, they all also realise that many of the claims made about Magna Carta are grossly exaggerated. As a result, the account of Magna Carta told by their chapters is more realistic than the account told by many commentators. Instead of unbridled enthusiasm for the Great Charter, our contributors recognise that its influence has not been wholly positive.

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