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The Magna Carta of 1215 was of course written in Latin. All scholarly, theological and legal discourse was in Latin. This first version of the Magna Carta was written to take care of immediate problems — the conflict between King John, Pope Innocent III and the English barons over how much power the British king should have. It was not looking to make long-term rules.

During the reign of King Henry III (King John’s son), it was rewritten and reissued three times — in 1216, 1217, and 1225, and again in 1297 by Edward I (King John’s grandson). From then until the year 1416, as each new king ascended the throne, he would personally confirm his agreement to the Magna Carta. Copies were sent out to all the counties and read aloud for the people to hear.

What was in the Magna Carta?

It protected the English church from being controlled by the King, it established English common law, and on behalf of each King, it guaranteed certain rights to the King’s subjects. It held that:

  • No-one is above the law, not even the King;
  • No “freeman” (it did not apply to feudal serfs) can be imprisoned, exiled, or executed “except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land”;
  • Justice will not be sold to anyone, nor denied or delayed;
  • Each city and town can have its free customs and liberties

Does this sound familiar? The concept of habeas corpus (protection against illegal imprisonment) was brought to the U.S. by the early settlers and later incorporated into the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. As the Magna Carta stands to this day as the foundation of English law, so the U.S. Constitution stands as the foundation of American law. Neither is to be canceled or pushed aside by the shifting political pressures of society or changing fashions over the years.

Similar but different

The Magna Carta liberties were granted by a King to his subjects. In the U.S., the Constitution establishes a government by “We the People”, for those same “We the People”. That is a big difference of approach, but the basic concept of individual rights is the same. In 1957, the American Bar Association had a monument erected at Runnymede, the area of England (near the present Windsor Castle) where the Magna Carta was originally signed and sealed by King John.

In 2007, a copy of the 1297 Magna Carta was on display at the U.S. National Archives Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

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