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Ten things you should know about Magna Carta

By Dr Emm Johnstone

#1: how many Magna Cartas are there?

There are 24 in total. 

It was thought to be 23 until late in 2014, when archivist Mark Bateson found a copy in a Victorian scrapbook in the Sandwich town archives.


#2: what remains?

Today we talk about the different clauses of Magna Carta, but originally they all just ran together in one document. Clause numbering was only introduced in 1759. The clauses still used today include clauses 1, 13,  39 and 40.

#3: clauses 39 and 40

Clauses 39 and 40 are the key clauses. These clauses ensured: 

  • No detention without trial
  • No confiscation of property without trial
  • No price for accessing justice
  • Justice to be delivered by the judgment of one’s equals
  • The law applies to everyone – the monarch does not have the right to circumvent the law of the land.

#4: trial by jury

Trial by jury dates from 1215, though it did not come about as a result of Magna Carta, but rather as the consequence of an order by Pope Innocent III.

#5: birth of parliament

Magna Carta is sometimes thought of as the birth of democracy. Clause 61 states that if the king oversteps his powers, a group of 25 barons will be elected by their peers to seize the king’s property until he abides by the charter again. 

However, the first recognisable parliament was held 50 years after Magna Carta. 


#6: the reinvention of Magna Carta

Magna Carta was rarely referred to in the courts until Parliament’s struggle against the Stuart kings in the 17th century. The idea the Magna Carta served to provide rules for rulers was established at this time, as it was presented as underpinning English law and the rights of kings to rule as well as limiting their powers.

#7: Magna Carta and America

During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defence. 

In 1776, the colonists argued that the English king George III was not sticking to the principles of Magna Carta by charging the colonists taxes when they had no representation in the British parliament. They embedded Magna Carta’s core principles in their new constitution (1787) and later also in the Bill of Rights (1791). 


#8: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 has been described as the Magna Carta of our age. It set out basic freedoms, comprising 30 articles to which all humans are entitled. Eleanor Roosevelt said “This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere”.


#9: how British is Magna Carta?
  • John’s kingdom excluded Scotland and Wales
  • French was the native language
  • Charter written in Latin
  • Justice delivered at the point of a sword
  • Rights only guaranteed for the rich.

The principle of the rule of law is a good one and we are right to be proud to have stated this in a charter that became a fundamental part of our legal system.

#10: a 21st century charter?

While Magna Carta has become a museum piece, the principles it stood for; protecting freedom and personal liberty, have remained a constant over 800 years. As each new generation has faced a real or imagined threat to their freedom and personal liberty, they have evolved their concept of the rule of law, one that was born in a field in Runnymede in Surrey.


Want to know more about Magna Carta?

Why not join our free online six-week course, led by experts from our Department of History, starting on 15 June? Sign up now!


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