Thousands are gathering at Runnymede, near Windsor, Berkshire, for an elaborate commemoration of the historic text, within which the foundations of parliamentary democracy, human rights and the supremacy of the law over the crown were first enshrined.
The Queen, patron of the Magna Carta Trust, will be joined by other senior members of the royal family, including the Duke of Cambridge, and parliamentarians led by prime minister David Cameron.
Magna Carta – or Great Charter, a Latin translation that famously eluded Cameron during a 2012 appearance on the US David Letterman talk show – has formed a cornerstone of fundamental liberties over eight centuries.
Yet it took the Americans to erect the first memorial – a stone pillar – at the site where King John was forced to acquiesce to the demands of his rebellious barons. Installed by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1957, the stone honours a document that travelled across the Atlantic with the pilgrim fathers and became the inspiration for the constitution of the United States.
A new art installation will be opened and the ABA memorial will be re-dedicated during Monday’s celebration and pageant.
The 3,500 words on the calfskin parchment, first drafted by the archbishop of Canterbury, were eventually extracted from King John, known as John Lackland after losing Normandy and Anjou to the French, by frustrated noblemen who captured London and held him to ransom. All involved on that historic day would be astonished to think of its resonance since. Indeed, John never wanted it published and it was annulled by the pope nine weeks later. He ruled that the king had been forced to sign it under duress.
It was redrafted in 1216, 1217 and 1225, and confirmed in English law in 1297 – 81 years after the death of John, a king one contemporary writer described as being “brimful of evil qualities” and whom history condemns as a cruel and lecherous tyrant.
Most parts of it have since been repealed and it was originally an English document relevant only to rich, free, land-owning males. Buried within it, however, were clauses that have universal relevance today and its modern interpretation owes much to Sir Edward Coke, considered to be the greatest jurist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, who updated it for use against the Stuart kings.
There are four copies of the charter still in existence, two in the British Library and one each in Lincoln and Salisbury cathedrals.
On the eve of the commemorations, new evidence emerged to rebut the theory that it was King John’s royal scribes who were responsible for its publication and preservation. Rather, say historians following a three-year study, the fact it survived was down to church scribes based at the ecclesiastical centres in Lincoln and Salisbury.
The identity of those who wrote two of the four remaining copies were uncovered by the Magna Carta Project. Its principal investigator, Prof Nicholas Vincent, a medieval history expert at the University of East Anglia, said: “To have found and identified the work of these scribes, 800 years after their writing, is a significant achievement, certainly equivalent to finding needles in a very large haystack.
“King John had no real intention that the charter be either publicised or enforced. It was the bishops instead who insisted that it be distributed to the country at large and thereafter who preserved it in their cathedral archives.
“We now find at least two cathedral churches, Lincoln and Salisbury, each producing its own Magna Carta, supplying the time, the scribe and the initiative to get the document copied.”
Project team member David Carpenter, professor of medieval history at King’s College London, said: “These exciting discoveries dovetail perfectly with another major finding of the project, namely that one of the two originals of Magna Carta now in the British Library was sent in 1215 to Canterbury cathedral and can be known as ‘The Canterbury Magna Carta’.”
Originally known as “the Charter of Runnymede”, it became known as Magna Carta two years later, when it was reissued by John’s son, Henry III.