4/09/2015 Peter Durantine

What You Don't Know About The 800-Year-Old Magna Carta

An 800-year-old document written by an English scribe in the Court of King John is "hard-wired" in America's political and legal system, just as it is in England and Europe.

That document is the Magna Carta, and it remains the bedrock of modern democracy, said British Medieval Historian Nicholas Vincent.

A professor at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, Vincent leads a project financed by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council that is researching the background of the Magna Carta, Latin for "the great charter." He spoke at Franklin & Marshall's April 9 Common Hour, a community discussion held every Thursday during the semester.

"Seventeen states have incorporated text of Magna Carta within their constitutions, beginning with South Carolina in the 1830s and most recently with North Dakota in the 1940s," Vincent said.

A pillar of English liberty, influential to 17th- and 18th-century political thought, and an inspiration to the American colonists, Magna Carta is called by the National Archives in Washington "one of the most important documents in the history of democracy." This year marks the 800th anniversary of the document's sealing by King John.

Magna Carta was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King John and a group of rebel barons. The document, written on sheepskin in 1215 with many versions to follow, established powers that would become the foundation for representative government and legal principles such as due process.

  • British Medieval Historian Nicholas Vincent leads a project financed by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council that is researching the background of the Magna Carta, Latin for "the great charter." Image Credit: Melissa Hess

However, neither John nor the barons kept their commitments, so Pope Innocent III annulled the document, starting another war between King John and the barons. When John died, his successor reinstated the document. So began a line of monarchs reinstating and canceling the Magna Carta, each iteration reshaping the rights and principles that were the basis of America's Bill of Rights, Vincent said.

"Magna Carta has played a role in the history of the United States," he said.

Indeed, its image appears on the door and frieze of the U.S. Supreme Court building, in the state Capitol at Madison, Wis., and on a mural in Cleveland, a federal building in Indiana, the National Cathedral in New York City, and the exterior of the Los Angeles Superior Court building.

In the early 1940s, prior to America's entry into World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to entice President Franklin Roosevelt into declaring war on the Germans, who the British were fighting alone at the time, with a gift of one of the original versions of the Magna Carta. As Vincent pointed out, though, the document was not Churchill's to give. It belonged to the Lincoln Cathedral.

Earlier this year, in a story reported worldwide, Vincent and a fellow archivist with the Magna Carta Project discovered a rare copy of the Magna Carta in a Victorian scrapbook in the British town of Sandwich.

F&M sophomore Melanie Greenwald, a history major, said she was impressed by the lore of the document.

"What I like about learning history is that a lot of stuff is actually myth rather than fact," Greenwald said. "He was sort of debunking history." 

  • One of only four surviving copies of the 1215 text. Image Credit: British Library
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