Magna Carta: The Enduring Struggle For Rights & Justice


The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the Middle Ages. It was written in Magna Carta. – From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 inaugural speech

The Magna Carta (which means Great Charter in Latin) is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. This historical document helped to lay the foundation of democracy around the world. With all the celebrations that took place this week for Canada Day and for the many celebrations taking place in the U.S. this weekend for Independence Day, many do not realize the significance and importance that the Magna Carta has had on both countries. In the U.S., the founding fathers took many of the principles and ideals from Magna Carta when creating the Declaration of Independence. In Canada, Magna Carta helped to shape the federal Bill of Rights in 1960 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which forms the first part of the 1982 Constitution Act.

© Chapter of Durham Cathedral – Scan of the Magna Carta, Issued by King Edward I in 1297

I was very excited to see a copy of the Magna Carta at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau this week. The document that is on display at the museum is one of only seven copies remaining, from the final version of the Magna Carta that was issued by King Edward I in 1297. It is the best preserved copy of the seven that are left.  I also saw its companion document, The Charter of the Forest. It too is the final version from the year 1297, and is one of three surviving copies. These documents and the exhibition provide a rare glimpse back in time. I felt inspired and deeply moved when viewing them. With my background in HR, I have a special appreciation for the human rights and equalities that the Magna Carta has helped to establish. The Magna Carta can be considered a universal model or blueprint for democracy, law, and human rights.

Brief History Of How The Magna Carta Came To Be

Let’s travel back in time to the Middle Ages. It is the summer of 1215, and England is bitterly divided on how it should be governed. England is on the brink of civil war. The Barons are on one side with their camp in the capital of London, and on the other side are King John and his camp at Windsor Castle. In between both locations is Runnymede.

What had led them to this breaking point?

King John had abused his power and was considered by many to be a bad King.  He wanted to regain all the continental power that he had lost. Starting in 1206, King John decided he would raise his cash reserves and managed to double his royal revenue. By 1212 King John had amassed a large sum of money – somewhere around 132,000 £ in coins. Then he lost it ALL.

During the summer of 1212, King John launched an attack against King Philip Augustus for his lands in France. This battle ended at the Battle of Bouvines on July 27, 1214. King John lost. The Barons were furious.

During the winter of 1214-15 the Barons took a revolutionary step. This revolution was based on an idea, as they had no one that could lay claim to the thrown to replace King John. Led by Robert Fitzwalter, the Barons demanded that the King restore their ancient rights and liberties. The Barons were referring to the Charter of Liberties granted by Henry I which had been granted over a hundred years earlier.  King John refused.

The dispute between King John and the Barons reached a breaking point.  And on May 5, 1215, the Barons renounced their allegiance to the throne. Twelve days later, the Barons took over the capital; London. This forced King John to begin negotiations. These negotiations took place on neutral grounds located at Runnymede.

The Magna Carta Memorial at Runneymede near Egham in Surrey England. It commemorates the signing of Magna Carta by King John in 1215 at Runnymede

Runnymede was the half-way point between the camps of the Barons and the King. It was a great, neutral meeting point as it was (and still is) too wet and too boggy to be a good battle field. It took several meetings at Runnymede but by June 10, 2015 a draft document was prepared. This was an outline settlement between both parties. The King confirmed the settlement, known as the Articles of the Barons, by ordering that his royal seal be placed on it. By June 15, 1215 a verbal agreement had been reached between the King and the Barons.

Magna Carta presented to King John of England

The Articles of the Barons was then transcribed into Magna Carta. 13 copies were produced and distributed throughout the land.  Sadly, there are only 4 surviving copies of the original Magna Carta today.

© Chapter of Durham Cathedral – The King’s Seal, Magna Carta

Even though the King’s Seal was placed on Magna Carta, King John did not keep his word. He appealed to Rome and to Pope Innocent III to have Magna Carta annulled. Pope Innocent III agreed and only ten weeks after Magna Carta was issued it was deemed null and void.

This upset the Barons and both sides prepared for war, but as fate would have it, on October 19, 2016, King John died unexpectedly during a storm. His enemies alleged that he died by eating too many peaches.

King John’s nine year old son was crowned King Henry III. Since he was under age he did not have executive powers, so the real power laid with his regent, William the Marshall, who was himself a Baron. William re-issued Magna Carta with a few changes.

Magna Carta was saved.

In 1225, when King Henry III was old enough to assume executive power, Magna Carta was re-issued. It emphasized that it was granted with the King’s full and free consent.

© Chapter of Durham Cathedral – Magna Carta with King’s Seal, King Edward I, 1297

King Edward I (King Henry III’s son), re-issued the Magna Carta again in 1297 and it became part of England’s statute law. This is version that is on display at the Canadian Museum of History.

The Charter of the Forest

© Chapter of Durham Cathedral – The Charter of the Forest with the King’s Seal. Companion document of the Magna Carta.

The Charter of the Forest was first issued on November 6, 1217 as a complementary charter to the Magna Carta from which it had evolved. It was reissued in 1225 with a number of minor changes to the wording, and then was joined with Magna Carta in the Confirmations of Charters in 1297 by King Edward I.

The Charter of the Forest provided the right of common access to private (royal) lands for hunting, fishing and the gathering of wood.

© Chapter of Durham Cathedral – King’s Seal on the Charter of the Forest

Key Principles of the Magna Carta are:

  1. No one is above the law, not even the monarch. This created the basis for equal justice not only for barons, but for all citizens.
  2. No one can be detained without cause or evidence (habeas corpus).
  3. Everyone has a right to trial by jury. This transformed the administration of justice.
  4. A widow cannot be forced to marry and give up her property. This was a major first step in women’s rights.

Magna Carta and the United States

Magna Carta matters in America too. (Perhaps it can even be considered the first English export there.) Magna Carta was carried in the minds of the English colonists. The principles of Magna Carta were written into their laws, starting with the of the Charter of Virginia, drafted by Edward Coke in 1606.

In 1765, the government of King George III imposed a tax on the sale of paper. It was called the Stamp Act. There was an immediate outcry by the people that the Stamp Act was against Magna Carta and the natural rights of Englishmen. Tensions between the governed and the governors escalated into a demand for independence. All out war broke out.

The founding fathers emerged and drafted their own “Magna Carta”, The Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers, was very familiar with the Magna Carta and the writings of Coke. He accused King George III of taxing without consent, interfering with freedom of trade and punishing in life, limb and property without due process of law.

Did You Know?

  • The Magna Carta, in full, stands on the statute books of 17 of the 52 States in the U.S.
  • That the Magna Carta has been cited by the Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States 400 times.
  • The two front doors of the Supreme Court in the U.S. are separated into 8 panels depicting the history of law. The four panels on the left hand door deal with origins of law in the ancient worlds. Three out of the four panels on the right door depict the origins of English law and the Magna Carta.
Front door to the Supreme Court in Washington DC

Magna Carta and Canada

Canada’s first constitutional document was the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It established land rights of Canada’s First Nations. There are numerous parallels between Magna Carta and the Royal Proclamation with regards to land ownership and the legal rights between the monarch and its subjects.

The Royal Proclamation also granted all British colonies the rights and liberties of British citizens, including the rights guaranteed by Magna Carta as interpreted by the Petition of Right and Bill of Rights, stating “all Persons Inhabiting in or resorting to our Said Colonies may confide in our Royal Protection for the Enjoyment of the Benefit of the Laws of our Realm of England.”

Magna Carta also informs the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and continues to be cited in Canadian legal proceedings, and of course, informs the parliamentary system of government.


Besides its influence on Canada and the United States, Magna Carta has also influenced independence movements in Africa and Asia. It also informs an international framework of human rights. It is a legacy that is sure to impact the world for generations to come.

If you ever have the opportunity to see a copy of the Magna Carta in person, do not pass it up. It is a once in a lifetime experience to be in the same room with one of the most significant historical documents in the world.

The Magna Carta and The Charter of the Forest are on display at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau until July 26th. Other locations and dates for this Canadian exhibition include:

  • The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg: August 15 to September 18
  • Fort York National Historic Site, Toronto: October 4 to November 7
  • Legislative Assembly of Alberta Visitor Centre, Edmonton: November 23 to December 29

A Special Thank You to the Canadian Museum of History for their hospitality and for providing me with the scans of the Magna Carta and The Charter of the Forest for this post.

The Canadian Museum of History is located on the shores of the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec. It is Canada’s largest and most popular cultural institution and worth visiting if you are in the National Capital Region.

The Magna Carta exhibition (Magna Carta – Law, Liberty and Legacy) was developed by Magna Carta Canada. The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest are on loan from Durham Cathedral in Great Britain, and the tour has been organized by Lord Cultural Resources.

Photo Credits: The Canadian Museum of History, Big Stock, Getty Images
Sources: Wikipedia, Magna Carta And Its Gifts To Canada, The Canadian Museum of History,, British Library

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