picture of Jay-Z and colour illustration of King John of England
Jay-Z’s new album and song lyrics show how our understanding of the Magna Carta has come a long way since barons imposed their will on King John in 1215 © Getty Images

It was, as these things go, something of a flop. The Magna Carta was a document hammered out between King John and a group of feisty barons in the summer of 1215 that set out an agreement between them on the subjects of England’s taxation, feudal rights and justice.

It was the culmination of a sticky period for both parties, and must have been greeted with some eyebrow-raising on that evening’s edition of Newsnight. The most striking part of the charter allowed, for the first time, for the powers of the king to be limited by a written document. Observers hoped that it heralded a new era of collaboration between the monarch and his subjects.

But the dawn was false. The Magna Carta was valid for just 10 weeks.

The only reason the king had agreed to the terms of the charter was to play for time. He then appealed to Rome to declare the document null and void. By the end of the summer, a papal bull from Pope Innocent III granted him his wish. By the winter, England was embroiled in civil war. The following year John went on the offensive, celebrating a victory in the eastern counties with a feast of peaches and cider. They gave him dysentery. He died in October 1216.

Little of the drama and subterfuge of those politically febrile days can be detected in the small room of the British Library in which two of the four surviving copies of the first Magna Carta are kept. One of them is virtually illegible, having been damaged by fire in the 18th century. The other is a pretty tough read too, the text laid out austerely in a continuous flow of abbreviated Latin.

It’s a document that makes for fascinating reading if you are a medieval scholar specialising in the financial affairs of England’s nobility. But halfway down – and we talk about a news report burying the lead! – comes the section that has made the Magna Carta one of the most respected and influential documents in the history of the world. It goes like this:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

The impact of what later became known as Clauses 39 and 40 resonates long and hard in modern political life (only two other clauses still survive in the UK’s statutes). “They redefined the relationship between nations and their rulers,” says Philip Buckler, dean of Lincoln. “The Magna Carta said: no one is unanswerable.”

Lincoln Cathedral is where one of the other copies of the Magna Carta is kept; the fourth is in Salisbury Cathedral. In February 2015, it will be announced on Monday, all four copies of the Magna Carta are to be brought together for the first time in history as part of the charter’s 800th anniversary. It will be studied by specialist scholars, and also open to viewing by 1,215 lucky members of the public, selected by ballot. After just three days, the Salisbury and Lincoln copies will return to their homes as part of local celebrations.

Claire Breay, lead curator of medieval manuscripts at the British Library, says she hopes the occasion will enhance the public’s understanding of the document. “My experience is that although it has a high recognition factor – the most frequently asked question at our information desk is ‘Where is the Magna Carta?’ – people don’t actually know how it came about.”

But does it matter? The Magna Carta has become one of those items that has transcended its original meaning, to become something for everyone. Is its power real, or merely talismanic?

Its most bizarre recent manifestation is in the title and supposed subject matter of Jay-Z’s freshly released album Magna Carta …Holy Grail. The rapper’s tribute is arguably a shallow one, his interest in the infringement of human rights seemingly confined to his own: “Now I got tattoos on my body, Psycho bitches in my lobby, I got haters in the paper, photo shoots with paparazzi, Can’t even take my daughter for a walk,” as the album’s opening track laments. In any case, Magna Carta, say those in the know, is little more than a vainglorious pun on Jay-Z’s real name, Shawn Carter.

But travel to Salisbury Cathedral and you will currently see on display, next to its version of the Magna Carta, the cover of Magna Carta …Holy Grail. June Osborne, dean of Salisbury, explains the reasoning behind the improbable juxtaposition.

“We are not just custodians of an archival document that a few scholars enjoy looking at,” she says. “Because we have the Magna Carta here, part of our identity is about how social justice gets created and embedded in our society. Jay-Z is a global icon. He comes out of a world that is very poor and very unfair. He speaks in particular to the young disempowered. He is part of the urban narrative who can spread the message about how the powerful of the world have to answer for the neglect and challenges of the poor.”

We have travelled a long way from feuding barons. But that is the point. Few people bother themselves with those arcane clauses that require specialist interpretation. The Magna Carta has become a symbol of issues that stray far from its original remit.

For the irreverent talk show host David Letterman last year, the Magna Carta became a skewer on which to give his guest David Cameron a cheap roasting when the British prime minister was unable instantly to translate the words “Magna Carta” from Latin into English. (“You’re testing me,” said a slightly panic-stricken Cameron – to which Letterman replied, with barely suppressed sarcasm: “It would be really good if you knew this.”)

Americans will have been shocked at Cameron’s hesitation. There is no country that pays greater homage to the charter than the US. In 1939, the Lincoln version was displayed at the New York World’s Fair. When war was declared, it was instantly transferred to the Library of Congress, and then to Fort Knox, for safe keeping. It is due to travel to Washington next year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that occasion.

“It is regarded as the grandparent of the American Constitution,” says Philip Buckler. “What I found absolutely thrilling when I travelled with it to the US was to see these yellow busloads of schoolchildren queueing to see our Magna Carta. There were teachers with tears in their eyes.”

I ask him if it is better appreciated in the US than in its homeland. “Well, it is something to do with how hard the American people have had to work to create their identity and their nation. We regard it as part of our heritage but, in a way, we take it for granted. We don’t always appreciate all that we have. But it does have this extraordinary power to move people.”

The Magna Carta is not the only ancient document on human rights to have found itself deployed on goodwill missions. The Cyrus Cylinder, one of the British Museum’s most treasured objects, has been circling the world like an Eagles reunion tour for the past couple of years. The cylinder, inscribed on the orders of Persian king Cyrus the Great after he captured Babylon in 539BC, is often referred to as the first bill of human rights. It allowed deported people to return to their homelands and worship freely.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, accompanied the cylinder on its politically charged trips to Tehran in 2010 and this year to the US, where it was lauded for very different reasons. “In Tehran, President Ahmadi-Nejad read it very clearly as a demonstration of a long Iranian tradition of defending the weak and setting free the oppressed,” he says. “He linked Cyrus’s protection of the Jews with Iran’s protection of the Palestinians.”

On its subsequent trip to the US (it is currently on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art), the cylinder sparked a different debate. “It was seen very much as the document that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem from Babylon,” says MacGregor. “It is one of the founding documents of Israel.” The Greek writer Xenophon’s account of the life of Cyrus, the Cyropaedia, was keenly studied by Thomas Jefferson, whose annotated copy is in the Library of Congress. A delicious paradox: did the Persian ruler today championed by Ahmadi-Nejad influence the writing of the US Declaration of Independence?

It has been one of MacGregor’s contentions, during his directorship of the British Museum, that history is best told by objects, which slither through different generations, acquiring extra layers of meaning and shades of interpretation.

“These texts, such as the Cyrus Cylinder, the Magna Carta, the Ashoka Pillar edicts in India, actually say very little,” he says. “But they become bearers of whole sets of values and aspirations. They are screens on which the value of a tradition can be projected. They become documents which go on changing their meaning. They provide an ancestry for important ideas. We all know that the Magna Carta was actually about one group of privileged and powerful people protecting themselves from someone who was even more privileged and powerful. But it has become something else.”

June Osborne agrees. “All of those things [raised in the Magna Carta] come out of a context. Nobody is pretending that the barons of early 13th-century England were disinterested or altruistic, or anything other than an ideologically driven group. We are not trying to pretend that the Magna Carta is something that it isn’t.”

What it wasn’t, above all, was a democratic document. The “free” men referred to in Clause 39 of the charter – quite apart from ruling out half of the population – were in fact an elite group that excluded the rural peasantry, or villeins, who made up a large part of England’s population.

But even in its more immediate history – there were reissues in 1216, 1217 and 1225 before it was finally copied on to the first statute roll in 1297 – the Magna Carta acquired a mystical power far beyond its limited origins.

In 1341, parliament required all officers of the state to swear to observe its terms. By the 17th century, Edward Coke, Lord Chief Justice under the Stuart kings, was interpreting it as a declaration of individual liberty, and the origin of the principle of trial by jury. And so it went on: it is impossible to read the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights without noting the echoes of the Magna Carta.

In the 21st century, the Magna Carta finds itself, with some inevitability, turning into a brand. Get set for the shopping experience of your life in 2015: framed facsimiles, tea towels, “I ♥ Magna Carta” car stickers. On one level, this is a little depressing: the dissemination of yet another idea that is not clearly understood. There is a danger that the charter’s talismanic powers are fulfilled at the expense of a proper appreciation of its conception, and limitations.

But let’s not be too stern. It may be true that superficial readings of such iconic documents leave them open to adoption by disreputable advocates. Cyrus the Great might not have found it so great that Ahmadi-Nejad became misty-eyed when invoking his name.

We can instead marvel at the lasting power of those ideals, however vaguely expressed and limited by historical context. “It is very pleasing,” says MacGregor, “that these documents are for the most part ethically admirable, wanting to defend the weak, constrain the strong and right injustices.”

That’s not bad work for a document that was respected for just 10 weeks; and not a bad mission statement for the human race.



Peter Aspden interviews Iranian film director Mania Akbari


Learned counsel: Hope in a world of secret courts, by Philippe Sands

I don’t remember exactly when the Magna Carta entered my life. Perhaps when I was a schoolboy – told of an obscure old document said to reflect the best of English traditions, of fairness and liberty. I have a dim recollection of being lectured about it in the autumn of 1979, when I first studied constitutional law. Then it disappeared as part of my daily legal life, popping up again in the late 1990s as I became involved in human rights cases. It’s been a constant ever since, sword and shield as governments across the globe seek to expand their powers in the name of security.

After September 11 2001, the British government and parliament took draconian steps, egged on by the Bush administration. Those said to be involved in terror but who could not be deported were detained indefinitely without charge or trial. Around that time, when I was involved in cases that ensued, I happened to go on a family trip to Salisbury. We visited the cathedral, where I saw a copy of the original Magna Carta.

It was moving to read the words inscribed on a parchment nearly eight centuries earlier. The text speaks to due process: the idea that every person is entitled to security against the arbitrary exercise of power. In 1215 it was a concern about individual liberty in the face of sovereign power.

Only a small part of that text is in force today. But what a part! “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled,” it declares (in its modern form). “Nor will we proceed with force against him …except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

The Magna Carta began by offering some rights only to some people, only against some organs of the state. But the idea spread to national constitutions and, near the end of the second world war, in international law more generally.

In September Oxford University Press will reissue An International Bill of the Rights of Man, a seminal 1945 work by Hersch Lauterpacht. Writing a new introduction to his book, a catalyst for the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, I was struck by how much the Magna Carta and its progeny have inspired human rights today.

It was through the clauses of the Magna Carta, Lauterpacht wrote, “that the very notion of rights of the individual against the power of the state struck deep roots in European consciousness”. Those clauses transcend time, place and person. In a world of secret courts, surveillance and other abuses, the Magna Carta offers hope.

Philippe Sands QC is professor of law at University College London


Letter in response to this article:

Just my bags and the Magna Carta / From Mr Chris Slack
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