June 15, 2015 marked the 800th anniversary of King John affixing his seal to a charter on the fields at Runnymede. This document has come to be known as the “Magna Carta” or the “Major Charter” and is recognized as the cornerstone of the rule of law and human rights law. In it, King John promised, among other things, that:
- A free man cannot be detained or imprisoned without due legal process
- A free man will be tried by his peers
- A son can inherit land from his father held of the King, upon the payment of fees associated with such
- The property rights of minors who inherit land held of the King will be respected
- Earls and barons can only be fined by other earls and barons, and only in proportion to the measure of the offence
- A free man’s land cannot be seized to pay his debts owing to the Crown unless his personal property is insufficient to discharge the debt
- Common pleas (court sessions) will be held at fixed locations instead of being held at the King’s Court
- Two judiciaries (judges) shall visit each county four times each year
- A widow is entitled to the return of her dower upon the death of her husband
- A widow cannot be forced to remarry against her will provided she promises she will obtain the King’s permission prior to remarrying
- If a free man dies intestate, his personal property shall be distributed to his nearest kinfolk and friends;
- A bailiff must have credible witnesses before charging a free man of an offence
- The persons who work in the judicial system – judiciaries, bailiffs, constables and sheriffs – must know the law and be known to follow it.
From this list one can see the connection to the rule of law and human rights law.
However, at the time it was sealed it was a document of limited application. The King’s promises were made to the barons, earls, free men, and to their widows and heirs in certain circumstances. Thus, the lives of most English persons were unaffected by the King’s actions. These persons remained unprotected. Also, the Charter was annulled by papal bull issued by Pope Innocent III on August 24, 1215. The Charter should have died then, but did not.
Instead, the barons kept fighting. King John died. The regency government of his young son, King Henry III, modified and reissued this Charter in 1216. They tried to appease the barons, but were unsuccessful. Another version was agreed to in 1217. This is when the Charter came to be known as the Magna Carta. This occurred because King Henry III sealed a lesser charter – the “Charter of the Forest” – in which he promised all freeman access to and use of common forests or lands – to gather wood, pasture livestock, and grow crops. The two charters needed distinct names. Because the first one was longer, it came to be called the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta was confirmed again in 1225, 1297, and in 1300.
Each time it was confirmed and sealed by the King, numerous copies were made. This is because one copy had to be deposited in every Cathedral and courthouse in England. One it was deposited there, it was read to the populace.
Scribes did most of the work. Using a quill and ink made from a nut from the oak tree and iron shavings, they wrote the charter in Latin in a calligraphy script on vellum. The left margin was perfectly justified, and the right nearly so. The lines of script were straight, and close together. All the copies had to be completed on the same day, as the King would only seal the copies of the charter on one day. It seems impossible that this could happen, but it did. Otherwise, the Magna Carta would not exist.
The seal was approximately 2 centimetres thick, and possessed a diameter of 7 to 8 centimetres. A mould was used, so the seal had 2 different sides, like a coin. Wax was heated and poured into each half of the mould. A “tail” or string from the vellum was trailed through one side of the mould. When the wax had cooled a bit, the two parts of the mould were joined like a sandwich. When the wax hardened, there was one seal. The charter was then folded, and the seal – attached by the tail of vellum – was placed on top. This way, the King’s seal remained unbroken when the Charter was unfolded. After it was read, it was refolded, with the seal on top.
800 years later, few copies of the Magna Carta remain. Some continue to be preserved in Cathedrals. Given their size and the fairly constant air temperatures and humidity in such structures, the documents survive. One copy is located at Government House in Canberra, Australia. Another copy is owned privately, but is located at the Whitehouse. Others are found at British universities.
When the copies are on display, they are treated very carefully. It took 3 weeks to unfold the version from 1300 owned by Durham Cathedral and currently on display at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. This version travels in a sealed case, where temperature and humidity are constantly monitored. No lights shine on the document. Instead, LED lights shine upwards in the case, with the light being deflected towards the document with the use of mirrors. Everything is done to preserve the document, because it truly is a foundation to our legal system.