Donald Elder: The Magna Carta and its Impact

Jun 4, 2015 by

Magna carta

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Magna Carta and its Impact

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Professor Elder, in June of this year- it will have been 800 years ago this June that the Magna Carta was signed. We must reflect on this document and its importance. First of all, what were some of the events that led up to the Magna Carta?

In 1199, John Plantagenet became the king of England upon the death of his brother Richard. He proved to be a very unpopular ruler. The sources of discontent with him ranged from his raising taxation rates to his imprisonment of citizens without giving a reason. Failure in battle added to the enmity felt by the English people toward him. Finally, in 1215 members of the English nobility rose in rebellion against him. After they captured London, King John reluctantly agreed to speak to the nobles about their grievances. It was at this meeting that they presented him with their demands. This list is what we know as the Magna Carta.

2) Why Runnymede-what was there and why was that place given the distinction?

Runnymede is a meadow approximately 20 miles west of London, and is situated on the banks of the Thames River. It had historically been a meeting place for the Council of the kings of England starting in the 7th century. It is believed that for these reasons it was chosen as the location for King John to meet with his nobles.

3) Now who exactly signed it and how binding was the document at that time?

King John signed the document, as did 25 English nobles. There were also a number of clerics who served as witnesses for the document. Scarcely had the ink dried on the document when King John attempted to subvert the Magna Carta. Indeed, he asked the Pope to have the document annulled. For their part, the nobles had promised to give control of London back to the king, but they reneged on this. It was only much later that the basic principles enunciated in the Magna Carta were regarded as legally binding.

4) Short term implications – for the people of Britain – what were they?

Clearly, King John wanted the document to be invalidated. He therefore resisted its implementation, but his death a year later from dysentery prevented him from achieving his goal. Anticipating his death, John had designated his son Henry as the heir to his throne, but because Henry was only nine years old a regent had to be appointed to rule in his place until he became an adult. The individual who filled this role agreed that the English monarchy should abide by the principles of the Magna Carta. By the end of the thirteenth century, most of its provisions were recognized as being a part of English law.

5) Now, long term implications for all of Great Britain – and when did these things begin to occur?

The Magna Carta has not always had the same influence in England that Americans would likely expect it to have held. In fact, it seems that for almost three hundred years after it became part of English law it was almost never cited in a court case. It was not until the political unrest in the 1600s that English writers began to once again refer to the document. They were clearly motivated to do so by the fact that the Magna Carta had placed limits on the power of the monarch, a principle that the Stuart kings seemed reluctant to embrace. But after the Glorious Revolution, the English once again found little reason to focus attention on the document. Indeed, today only four of the Magna Carta’s provision are considered to be part of English law.

6) How was it received in other countries – Or was there even any acknowledgement of this document, by say France or Germany?

England in 1215 was a very insignificant nation. For that reason, what happened on the field at Runnymede had no effect on other nations. However, every nation in today’s world that was colonized by English settlers had its political framework shaped by the document.

7) Many of the things in the Magna Carta seem to have been translated into our Declaration of Independence. Can you name a few?

Clearly, the Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by the Magna Carta. They were, after all, attempting to deny the power of the king to rule them. Therefore, the spirit of the Magna Carta is quite evident in the Declaration of Independence. Interestingly, when our leaders met eleven years later to write the Constitution, they made no mention of the Magna Carta. But the Bill of Rights embodies at least four of the principles found in the Magna Carta, and later amendments also can be traced back to that document.

8) Are there scholars who study the Magna Carta and what universities are they affiliated with?

As one would expect, most of the scholars who focus on the study of the Magna Carta are English. Nicholas Vincent, a professor of History at the University of East Anglia,” is well known for “Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction,” and David Carpenter, who wrote “Magna Carta,” is a professor of History at King’s College.

9) Where is the original parchment document stored?

Unfortunately, the original document that King John signed no longer exists. But quite a few copies were made at the same time, and four of those are still extant. The British Library has two, while the cathedrals at Lincoln and Salisbury have the other two. Occasionally, the copies are displayed elsewhere, but those three locations are where the original Magna Cartas are housed.

10) Implications even today—are there any that can be traced back to the Magna Carta and Runnymede?

As previously noted, the influence of the Magna Carta has waxed and waned in England. In the United States, however, the document has been important since the nation’s origin. Perhaps the best illustration of this fact came in a 2008 US Supreme Court decision involving detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Ruling that the government had acted illegally to imprison certain individuals held there, the majority opinion asserted that “Magna Carta decreed that no man would be imprisoned contrary to the law of the land.” This is powerful evidence that the Magna Carta remains an important bulwark of our freedom to this day.

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