One of the most important documents in the history of government—and the oft-cited root of our comparatively fledgling democracy—celebrates its 800th birthday today (probably). Celebrate with a series of facts from Magna Carta’s long and illustrious history.
1. There’s some debate about the anniversary.
Plenty of reputable sources will be touting Magna Carta’s 800th birthday today, and the Queen herself is visiting Runnymede to honor the signing. But some scholars think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Although the surviving original copies of the document itself say that it was “given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines on the 15th day of June in the 17th year of our reign,” some people believe that it took another couple of days to hammer out all the details and that it wasn’t sealed by King John until June 19, which is when the peace between John and his barons is known to have commenced.
2. Magna Carta failed to do what it was originally intended for.
Drafted as a peace treaty between the abhorred King John and his rebel barons, at first the great charter was an abject failure. Just 10 weeks after Magna Carta became law at Runnymede, Pope Innocent III nullified the agreement and plunged England into a civil war.
3. It wasn’t even the first of its kind ...
There was actually plenty of precedent for Magna Carta. In 1100, Henry I signed the similar Coronation Charter upon his accession to the throne. Like Magna Carta would do more than 100 years later, it was intended to grant a number of concessions to his barons, and represented the king binding himself to a set of laws. Although these promises were frequently flouted, after Henry’s death his next few successors kept up the tradition, affirming their commitment to Henry I’s promises to the barons. But Richard the Lionheart and King John decided to break with that tradition.
4. ... but it was influential.
Even though the original version was swiftly nullified, these days we consider Magna Carta the ancestor to many of our modern democratic constitutions. Just a year after it was drafted, the tyrannical King John died and his son, Henry III, just 9 years old at the time, succeeded him. Henry reissued the charter three times during the course of his reign, reintroducing it to the historical catalog, and on March 28, 1297, it was added to the Parliament Rolls by Edward I.
5. Three of the clauses are still on the books.
Many of the original 63 clauses pertained to minutia specific to life and government in the Middle Ages—like the proper width for the bolts of cloth used to make monks' robes. In fact, by the time Henry III reissued it, the Charter had been cut to 37 clauses. And those 37 stayed on the books into the 19th century, when British parliamentarians began repealing many of the obsolete laws from their long history.
Three of the original Magna Carta clauses are still enforced eight centuries later, however. The first pertains to the rights of the English church, and the second grants certain liberties and traditions to the city of London—but it’s the third that is the most famous. Clause number 29 (39 in the original) says that “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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” In other words, people cannot be legally punished without the sanction of the law and a fair trial.
6. Originally, it didn’t actually apply to everyone.
That “free man” stipulation in clause 29 made Magna Carta far less democratic than the many future documents it inspired. It was drafted to protect the barons’, or noble landowners', interests against those of the king. It granted virtually no further protection or rights to the scores of peasants that still answered to whomever owned the land upon which they worked.
7. There is no single original Magna Carta.
And no one knows who really wrote it, either. Although the document itself claims to be “Given by [John’s] hand,” we know it was essentially forced on the King by his barons and today the text is thought to have been largely influenced by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton. Regardless, in its initial form, there were multiple copies that were distributed to cathedrals across England during the summer of 1215, four of which still survive today.
8. In 2007, a 1297 Magna Carta sold at auction for $21.3 million.
It wasn’t even a 1215 edition. The 1297 copy sold for $21.3 million at Sotheby’s in New York, the most ever paid for a single page of text.
9. Winston Churchill tried to use a copy to entice the United States into World War II.
One of the few original copies had been on tour in the States when the war broke out. Rather than have it shipped back, Winston Churchill tried to force Lincoln Cathedral—who owned that particular copy—to donate this original Magna Carta to the United States in an attempt to entice the U.S. into an alliance. The British cabinet called this desperate measure "the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country." Ultimately, the document spent the rest of the War safely guarded at Fort Knox, but was returned to the UK in 1946.
10. It’s just “Magna Carta.”
Plenty of modern sources add the definite article out front, particularly in the United States. But since it was originally written in Latin, which doesn’t have a direct translation for articles like “a” and “the,” the correct way of referring to it is simply “Magna Carta”—as they always do in the UK.
11. FDR referenced Magna Carta.
Long before Jay-Z released Magna Carta … Holy Grail, the document served as a powerful allusion in American culture. In his third inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt extolled the inherent virtues of Democracy, saying, “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the middle ages. It was written in Magna Carta.” Other people who have referenced it publicly include Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
12. Just this year, another copy was discovered.
Earlier this year, a copy of Magna Carta was found in the local archives of Sandwich, a sleepy seaside town in eastern England. The particular copy found is believed to date to 1300. Although this means it is not an “original,” it joins just 23 other known copies of Magna Carta. It was discovered inside a 19th-century scrapbook kept by a researcher.
13. Magna Carta was sealed, not signed.
This is all well and good—King John was just behaving like all other Medieval monarchs when he used his official Great Seal, rather than a quill, to put his name to Magna Carta—except that the UK’s Royal Mint recently unveiled a two pound collectors coin in honor of this year’s anniversary that shows the king with a quill in hand. The obvious implications of this design choice—that the document was “signed” in the traditional sense—have stirred up a minor academic controversy.
14. It contained some rights for women.
Of course, this being 1215, women were not included in the protected group of “free [men]” referenced in the famed clause 29. However, they received some incidental protection from efforts to preserve the exclusivity of the noble class and ensure that noble children didn’t lose their inheritances. Noble women could inherit land (in the absence of any brothers) and refuse forced remarriage, and widowed baronesses controlled a dower—a portion (usually a third) of their husbands’ lands.
15. It's still a hot ticket.
In February this year, all four surviving 1215 Magna Carta were brought together for the first time in their 800 year history at the British Library in London. Security for the exhibit was intense, of course, but nothing compared to the competition to get into the room. More than 43,000 people applied for tickets to see the four tattered pieces of parchment, but only 1215 of them were given the opportunity to do so over the course of three days.