8 facts about Magna Carta: how much do you know?

The year 2015 – the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – is the ideal time to hold a new debate on the pros and cons of a written constitution, MPs have said

Magna Carta, 1215 (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Magna Carta, 1215 (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Next year the UK will celebrate the sealing of the first "Great Charter" by King John in 1215 – a document that safeguarded basic freedoms, and placed limits on the power of the crown.

The cross-party Commons Political Reform Committee says the anniversary is the right time to consider the UK's future constitutional framework.

Here, we summarise eight things you need to know about Magna Carta:

Magna Carta is a 13th-century document enshrining the rights, privileges and liberties of the clergy and the nobles, and placing limits on the power of the crown. Most of the 63 clauses deal with the administration of justice, and the detail of feudal rights and customs

• It was granted by King John in June 1215. The document was drawn up after his barons rebelled and forced him to agree to limitations on his power, because he had demanded heavy taxes to fund his unsuccessful wars in France

Much significance was placed on Magna Carta in later years, but at the time it was primarily “a practical solution to a political crisis which primarily served the interests of the highest ranks of feudal society by reasserting the power of custom to limit despotic behaviour by the king”, the British Library explains

• Only three of the original clauses in Magna Carta are still law. One defends the freedom and rights of the English church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third paved the way for trial by jury by stating that no man could be arrested, imprisoned or have their possessions taken away except by “the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land”

Magna Carta was – and continues to be – significant because it placed limits on royal authority, and made clear that the monarch was not above the law

• Magna Carta was written on parchment, which was made from dried sheepskin. The scribes who produced it wrote in medieval Latin and abbreviated words to save space on the parchment, says the British Library

Many copies of the document were sent out to bishops and sheriffs across the country, says the British Library. The exact number is unknown, but four survive: one in Lincoln, one in Salisbury, and two in the British Library

• By August 1215, Pope Innocent III had annulled Magna Carta, declaring it null and void and having been sealed under duress. King John died of dysentery aged 50 in October that year. But, says Magna Carta 800th, “over the course of the next 800 years, the idea of Magna Carta gathered momentum and assumed a greater authority in respect of the central key clauses concerning liberty and justice. These central clauses, usually referred to as 38 and 39, have not only stood the test of time, but have a potency of their own which has seen off hundreds of attempts at annulment, repeal, modification and suspension by successive monarchs and governments”

Next year the British Library will host a landmark exhibition exploring the history and resonance of the document – Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. To find out more about, click here.

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