By John Martin in London
Magna Carta “sets the bar high” and “sets a standard for all human beings,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said at an 800th anniversary celebration of the document’s sealing.
The celebrations — held June 15 at Runnymede, where the Charter was sealed in 1215 — were led by the Queen and attended by senior members of the Royal family, parliamentarians led by Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The original choice of this boggy field ensured that neither the King nor the Barons who were opposed to him could bring their armies to the scene.
Archbishop Justin Welby praised the role of his illustrious predecessor Stephen Langton (1150-1228), a key figure in creating the Charter. He was a “mediator between the King and his barons, counsellor to both, and an advocate of civil harmony, cohesion and goodwill,” Welby said. “His great legacy was this remarkable document, the spring from which so much of the human quest for political liberty has drawn, here and abroad, especially in the United States of America.”
Magna Carta — 3,500 words on calfskin parchment — was first drafted by Langton. It has a chequered history. King John is said to have signed at the point of a sword. Pope Innocent III annulled the document nine weeks later because the pontiff ruled the king had been forced to seal it under duress. It was redrafted in 1216, 1217, and 1225, and only confirmed in English law in 1297 — 81 years after John’s sealing.
“The values of Magna Carta are not just important to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, but across the world,” the Queen said in a written message to the gathering. “Its principles are significant and enduring.”
Loretta Lynch told the gathering: “While the hands that wrote Magna Carta have long been stilled, the principles they carved out of the struggles of their day and the struggles of the human condition live on.”
For centuries Runnymede was neglected. But in 1957 the American Bar Association erected a simple stone memorial there. The edifice has been much expanded since then and was rededicated on Monday.
The key message of Magna Carta is that no one is above the rule of law. While it is a document of its times, it is hailed as a talisman of liberty and has had an enormous global influence. The Pilgrim Fathers took a commentary on it with them to the New World. Thomas Jefferson drew on it in framing the American Declaration of Independence. Seventeen states include Magna Carta in full on their statute books. It became the template for constitutions of countries such as Australia, Egypt, and India.