On June 15th 1215, in a bucolic meadow outside London, King John of England, beaten down by incessant warring with his own barons, stuck his seal to a document. Eight hundred years later, the implications of that moment are still playing out. Written in Latin, the document was called Magna Carta Liberatum--which translates simply as "Great Charter of Liberties"--or, if you're in a hurry, simply Magna Carta.
Today, Magna Carta is regarded in both the UK and the US as a foundation stone of our freedoms. Next year marks its 800th anniversary, and to celebrate, Lincoln Cathedral in eastern England has sent its copy on a grand tour of the United States. From now until January, it will be exhibited at the Library of Congress.
King John was certainly no fan of Magna Carta, but while in the nobles' clutches he pretty much had to do as he was told. Just as soon as he wriggled free, he broke his oath, repudiated the charter, and started fighting with the barons once again. It was left to his son, Henry III, to sign the definitive 1225 version. In contrast to his father, Henry signed of his own free will... in exchange for a hefty tax to fill the royal coffers.
Why did John hate Magna Carta so much? Because, for the first time in history, it placed clear limits on royal power. Eight centuries on, some clauses sound stunningly modern. For example:
No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.
Today, we regard this idea--that our rulers can't punish or dispossess us just because they feel like it--as a given. In the early thirteenth century, it was revolutionary. Indeed, Magna Carta contains, in embryo, a number of rights we free-thinking moderns take for granted. It even hints at a principle that has caused a certain degree of friction between our two countries historically--no taxation without representation.
In 1776, a group of 56 clever men in Philadelphia decided to use ideas descended from Magna Carta to found an entire country. By that time, they didn't need a King to sign off on those principles, because they held them to be self-evident truths. Chances are, the King wouldn't have agreed anyway.
The connection between Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence has not gone unnoticed. It certainly didn't escape Winston S. Churchill, himself half-American, who said:
The Declaration of Independence is not only an American document. It follows on Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights [the British one, signed by William III in 1689] as the third great title deed in which the liberties of the English-speaking people are founded.
In 2007, the DC-based philanthropist David Rubenstein bought the last privately-held copy of Magna Carta--a re-issue sealed by Edward I in 1297--and lent it to the National Archives, where it is kept next to the originals of the United States' Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. Lincoln Cathedral's copy, a 1215 original, comes to the Library of Congress as part of a splendid exhibition entitled Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor. Fittingly, the Library has placed it next to Thomas Jefferson's own library and a display on civil rights.
But this US tour is appropriate for reasons beyond Magna Carta's connection to American liberty. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, the Lincoln version just happened to be in New York, on display at the World's Fair. To save this precious document from incendiary bombs on its return to Britain, the US government generously offered to keep the charter for the duration of the War. It was kept at the Library of Congress until the US entered the War, and then moved to Fort Knox until 1946.
Earlier today, at the opening of the Law Library of Congress exhibition, I was honoured to re-enact the 1939 handover, along with the current Marquess of Lothian, whose predecessor the eleventh Marquess was British Ambassador at the time. More importantly, the speech on behalf of my country was delivered by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne--the Queen's daughter and, in fact, a descendant of King John. Which just goes to show how far we've come in a mere 800 years.