Over the centuries, it became the watchword of those fighting against tyranny, till in the eighteenth century it leaped onto the world stage to become the foundation of the American Bill of Rights, and later to inspire the constitutions of Canada, Australia and India. Magna Carta has been called ‘England’s greatest export’. Follow this trail to discover its story.
Across the road from the Bank of England stands a great temple of a building. The Royal Exchange is a monument to trade. Go inside up onto the mezzanine floor and look at the huge painting of King John and the barons at the moment Magna Carta was agreed. It was commissioned by the governors of the Exchange to commemorate those hard-won freedoms without which commerce can’t flourish. Back in 1215, the decision by the burghers of London to support the barons against the king was a game-changer. It tipped the balance against King John, who was forced to agree to Magna Carta. The city was rewarded by having its privileges written into the Charter.
Next we head to the extraordinary village of Laxton to discover how, in the days before Magna Carta, a small community could fall victim to a king’s wrath.
Enquire at the lovely old Dovecote Inn about guided walking tours of the village and its fields. Stuart Rose, whose family have farmed in Laxton for 15 generations, will show you what life was like here back in the time of Magna Carta. Laxton is unique. It’s the only place in Europe where farmers use the same system of organising their work as their forebears did in the Middle Ages. The fields are divided into strips, so each farmer gets a share of the good soil as well as the badly drained land. And if you step inside the Dovecote Inn in October you may be lucky enough to see the Court Leet in session. The farmers have their own legally established court to govern their affairs. King John was Laxton’s landlord, and in 1207, he threatened to burn the whole place to the ground unless the villagers got together and paid him the then huge sum of £100. They paid up.
In King John’s day, St Albans just north of London, had the biggest church in England. It’s still here. Now a massive cathedral, its beautiful nave flanked by long lines of layered stone arches, St Albans has been a place of worship for 1700 years. It was here in 1213 that barons and the clergy first met to discuss their grievances against King John, a meeting that led to rebellion and ultimately to Magna Carta. And it was St Albans’ monks who wrote the chronicles that have come down to us describing John’s doings. We’ve learned not to believe everything they said - he didn’t actually offer to turn England into a Moslem country in return for military aid from north Africa. But the mud stuck and history has sometimes cast John blacker than he really was.
Next we head south for the Kent coast. In a steep-sided valley just outside Dover lies the charming village of Temple Ewell with its 900 year old church. King John was at odds with the Pope about who should appoint the archbishop of Canterbury, and for six years the Pope shut out the people of England from the protection of the church. But the king turned this terrible action to his own advantage. Pass between the thousand year old yew trees in Temple Ewell’s church yard, and inside stand before the altar where King John knelt to turn humiliation into victory. Here in 1213, he submitted to the pope’s representative. The pope was so delighted that he became John’s staunchest ally. Later he even excommunicated those barons who implemented Magna Carta.
A few miles west of London lies the most famous place in England associated with Magna Carta, Runnymede, a tranquil meadow on the banks of the River Thames just south of Windsor. Follow the signs from the car park alongside the hedge until you see the eight-columned memorial up a gentle rise to your right. It was near this spot that John met the barons and negotiated the deal that over the centuries has become such a potent symbol of freedom under the law. The memorial itself was built by the subscription of 9,000 American lawyers, a reminder of the power that Magna Carta still exerts today across the world.
This is a library like none you’ve ever seen. Inside its lobby, you could imagine you’re in a giant hotel in Dallas or Detroit. But don’t be fooled, the British Library is home to 150 million books, a figure which is growing at the rate of 3 million a year. And just in case you can’t imagine that, it means an extra 6 miles of shelving every twelve months. There was no single Magna Carta, - at least thirteen copies were made. Two of those that survived are on permanent display here, and during this 800th anniversary year, there’s a special exhibition of artefacts associated with the birth and dramatic later history of the Great Charter. Wherever else you go, don’t miss this.
Our next stop is remote and desolate, but still a place of beauty for those who like nature in the raw. This is the Wash, that giant bay on the east coast of England. Here, little more than a year after he’d sealed Magna Carta, King John became violently ill with food poisoning. And as he struggled along the coast, news reached him that his baggage train - loaded with the crown jewels and many other treasures - had been lost in the sucking sands of the Wash. Take the single track road beyond Holbeach St Matthew and you’ll soon see what a dangerous place this is when the tide rushes in. King John was dead within 10 days. His treasure has never been found.
Our final stop is inside the Houses of Parliament. Beneath the shadow of Big Ben stands Westminster Hall, already a hundred years old in the time of King John. Its elegance and scale are a tribute to medieval engineering. Go online to book a guided tour of the Palace, and make sure you stand on the raised platform beneath the huge stained glass window to look down over the Hall. It’s here that for 600 years, England’s Royal Courts of Justice conducted their business. Magna Carta had decreed that the king’s courts should be held in a fixed place. Westminster Hall was chosen, and as the monarch’s influence on the outcome of judicial cases diminished, royal justice came to mean independent justice. The Great Charter had shown that the law is more powerful than a king. And the hallowed right derived from Magna Carta - that the law is on the side of ordinary folk - sprang to life right here.
By Derek J. Taylor