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'A New State Of Things': Celebrating 800 Years Of The Magna Carta

A facsimile copy of the 1215 Magna Carta is displayed in the Library at Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England.
Matt Cardy
Getty Images
A facsimile copy of the 1215 Magna Carta is displayed in the Library at Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England.

"A new state of things begun in England; such a strange affair as had never before been heard; for the body wishes to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king ..."

Demanding freedom was so 13th century. That's when a poetic monk wrote this in the Melrose Chronicle, a record of negotiations between the unpopular King John and his rebel barons at Runnymede. The resulting Magna Carta of 1215 was meant to provide a short-term solution for a royal problem, but it accomplished much more: It laid the very foundations for democracy the world over.

On the face of it, the original Magna Carta — the "Great Charter" — was a peace treaty that lasted about two months and applied to just a handful of people. It might've been forgotten by history, but it established the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. And, perhaps most famously, that all "free men" had the right to justice and a fair trial.

The ideas it came to embody — freedom and human rights — have ensured that the Magna Carta remains a universal touchstone of liberty some 800 years later. Early pioneers to America took the principles of the Magna Carta with them, which provided a framework for the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. And the iconic document continues to inspire today.

"People see it as the foundation of democracy," says Julian Harrison, curator of medieval and earlier manuscripts at the British Library in London.

But today, the Magna Carta's influence can more readily be found in a number of U.S. state laws rather than British ones.

"Only three clauses have survived in British law," Harrison says. The rest have been repealed over time or superseded by modern legislation, such as the Human Rights Act (1998), he says, noting that its significance to Brits is more symbolic than legal today. U.S. state laws, however, have more clauses that can be traced back to the charter.

Over the years, the Magna Carta's dramatic legacy has frightened some and provoked many others. A letter written by a civil servant in 1947 — and hidden away in the U.K.'s National Archives until now — reveals, for example, how British officials refused to back plans for a Magna Carta Day in Commonwealth countries. They feared it might lead to "uncritical enthusiasm" for the Magna Carta's principles among "ill-disposed colonial politicians" seeking greater freedoms for their peoples.

It's had cultural resonance, too: Rapper Jay Z has cashed in on the document's fame, sprinkling medieval fairy dust over his 2013 album entitled Magna Carta... Holy Grail, which sold more than 500,000 copies in its first week.

The Library of Congress is celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta with an exhibition through mid-January, featuring an original 1215 copy of the text normally housed at Lincoln Cathedral in England.

Now, as the British Library prepares to reunite the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta for the first time in history ahead of its major exhibition, "Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy" from March 13 to September 1, a new chapter begins in this 800-year-old story.

Tim Berners-Lee, British inventor of the World Wide Web, is among those suggesting a Magna Carta for the Internet to keep it open and free in the face of government and corporate attempts to control it. This idea of a Digital Bill of Rights has also been taken up by the British Liberal Democrats, part of the governing coalition. Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, says the move would "protect our fundamental liberties online."

Making Berners-Lee's idea a reality would require worldwide agreement. But as its humble beginnings at Runnymede can attest, such strange affairs can come to pass.

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Karen Clare