RUNNYMEDE, ENGLAND — When Queen Elizabeth II stepped onto the meadows of Runnymede on Monday, a great feeling of pride and affection swept the thousands who had gathered on the June-green grass to mark the anniversary of one of the most famous documents in the world.
When her predecessor King John — depicted in popular culture as the overtaxing tyrant in the Robin Hood legend — met a group of incensed barons on the meadows to seal the Magna Carta, exactly 800 years ago, the mood was presumably far less jovial.
Nonetheless, the king, however reluctant, placed his seal on an agreement that established the idea that no one was above the law — including royalty. The Magna Carta, which is Latin for “Great Charter,” has inspired thinking about constitutions and democratic rights in countries around the world.
The expansive meadows of Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, are situated by the side of the River Thames and are frequently flooded.
On a cool but dry morning, about 3,000 people gathered in this peaceful setting ahead of speeches by British Prime Minister David Cameron and the archbishop of Canterbury. By noon, the beautifully dressed guests were basking in the sunshine as they ate lunch on the grass.
The charter, Cameron said, altered “forever the balance of power between the governed and the government.” (Cameron also mentioned the “Great Charter,” showing that he has brushed up on his history since the embarrassing moment when David Letterman grilled him on the English translation of Magna Carta and he came up blank.)
The Magna Carta ultimately curbed the powers of royalty, restricting the ability of the monarch to treat subjects in an arbitrary manner.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, leading the U.S. delegation, described the Magna Carta as the first draft of codes that now “stand at the heart of our system of justice.”
“It’s an occasion not to be missed. It was the start of all of it and something to be proud of,” said Norman Blackburn, 81, of Pontefract, England, who was standing in the meadow watching a large video screen showing the London Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory” on the main stage.
The legal document is still relevant today because “fundamentally, it shows that nobody
is above the law, and it establishes rule of law as paramount,”
said Justin Fisher, director of
the Magna Carta Institute at Brunel University in London. “It’s worth celebrating the democratic rights we enjoy. Plus,
800 years doesn’t come around very often, and we like a good party.”
The queen is the patron of the Magna Carta Trust, and although she did not address the crowd, she wrote in the event program: “The story of the British Monarchy is intertwined with that of Runnymede and Magna Carta.”
The commemoration is the most high-profile of a long list of Magna Carta-related celebrations in 2015.
In its “Law, Liberty, Legacy” exhibition, the British Library in central London is displaying two of the four original remaining copies of the Magna Carta — written on sheepskin parchment and crammed with text — alongside legal documents it influenced, including the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Bill of Rights, copies of which are on loan from the United States.
There were hundreds of celebrations this past weekend. A replica of the Great Charter was carried down the Thames as part of a relay boat race that ended in Runnymede with the unveiling of a statue of the queen. A scavenger hunt at Westminster on Sunday began with participants meeting “Maggie Carter,” dressed in a medieval costume.
Parliament had encouraged everyone to sit down at 3 p.m. Sunday for a cuppa to reflect on their liberties. On Monday, or Beer Day Britain, those who fancy a pint were invited to raise one in honor of the Magna Carta and the clause that mentions ale. (“Let there be throughout our kingdom a single measure for wine and a single measure for ale.”)
“Oh, my stars, is that breathtaking or what? Hold on to your heart, honey,” Muriel Pearson, 70, from Wilmington, N.C., said as she turned her head skyward to watch a flyover by the Royal Air Force Red Arrows squad trailing red, white and blue smoke.
“In this field were born precepts that made possible the United States Constitution, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the framework of justice in America, the United Kingdom, and much of the world,” said William C. Hubbard, president of the American Bar Association, as he re-dedicated a memorial erected at the site in 1957.
Meanwhile, campaigners from the group Occupy Democracy, who were hosting workshops near the Runnymede meadow, called the celebrations a “sham” after they said officials were turning away guests trying to get to their gathering.
The Magna Carta contains 63 clauses, including some not altogether relevant today: the crown (that is, the queen) cannot, for instance, steal wood for her castle.
Three clauses still remain on the British statute books, including a clause that promises any “free man” the right to a fair trial: “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 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.”
Experts say the agreement signed in 1215 was not intended to become an enduring symbol of democratic rights and liberty. The deeply unpopular King John sought to cut a deal with his rebellious barons, who
had taken control of London and opposed his arbitrary taxation.
In a theatrical showdown, the barons, who had renounced their allegiance to the king, met with the monarch at Runnymede, which is a few miles from the royal castle at Windsor. The agreement became known as the “Articles of the Barons,” and at least 13 copies, written in Latin, were distributed throughout the kingdom, including to the cathedrals in Lincoln and Salisbury, where two original copies remain.
In the words of the Magna Carta 800th committee, the charter had “gone viral.” It was also initially a bust, with the pope declaring it null and void within months. But versions of it were resurrected, and it became known as the Magna Carta. It was incorporated into English law in 1297.