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Most people in the UK have heard of the Magna Carta but very few have actually read it.  Below is a summary taken from  

When you hear people referring to Common Law, they mean the law of the land and in the UK it is the law as outlined in our original constitution as set out in the Magna Carta.  Originally issued under the rule of England’s King John back in 1215, the Magna Carta outlined the basic rights of citizens and declared that no one was above the rule of law—not even the king.

By the end of the 16th century the admiralty courts had come to exercise an extremely wide jurisdiction, reaching far beyond saltwater transportation into many areas of commercial law. (see the link below to understand more about Maritime Law.

What is the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) is a document guaranteeing English political liberties that was drafted at Runnymede, a meadow by the River Thames, and signed by King John on June 15, 1215, under pressure from his rebellious barons. By declaring the sovereign to be subject to the rule of law and documenting the liberties held by “free men,” it provided the foundation for individual rights in Anglo-American jurisprudence

Among the Magna Carta’s provisions were clauses providing for a free church, reforming law and justice, and controlling the behavior of royal officials. One of the charter’s 63 clauses tasked the barons with choosing 25 representatives to serve as a “form of security” ensuring the preservation of the rights and liberties that had been enumerated. Above all, the Magna Carta guaranteed that government, royal or otherwise, would be limited by the written law of the land. 

Re-issues Of 1216, 1217, And 1225

King John died on October 18/19, 1216, while Louis of France (afterward Louis VIII), supported by rebellious English barons, was trying to gain control of England

One of the first acts of the council of John’s young successor, Henry III, was to reissue the Magna Carta on November 12 in the hope of recalling men to their allegiance to the rightful king. 

The charter of 1216 was considerably shorter than its predecessor—42 clauses versus 63 in the 1215 document—as the council had omitted clauses dealing with purely temporary and political matters as well as those that might limit its own power to raise money or forces to carry on the war. 

The church, while keeping a general promise of freedom, lost its specific guarantee of free election to office. 

Even in that moment of danger, the council did not forget one main purpose of the charter: to provide a definitive statement of feudal law. It tried to address points in doubt, such as specific matters of inheritance law and the precise year at which an heir should attain his majority (age 21). Instead of the “form of security,” the council stated that all omissions were postponed for future consideration. They were never replaced.

Historical Significance Of The Magna Carta

By the time of the 1225 reissue, the Magna Carta had become more than a sober statement of the common law; it was a symbol in the battle against oppression. 

It had been read so many times in shire courts throughout the land that memorable phrases would be invoked in later documents, and whenever liberty seemed in danger, men spoke of the charter as their defense. 

The influence of the Magna Carta in England—and, later, in its colonies—had come not from the detailed expression of the feudal relationship between lord and subject but from the more-general clauses in which every generation could see its own protection. In England the Petition of Right in 1628 and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 looked directly back to clause 39 of the 1215 charter, which read:

No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

Indeed, this passage would serve as the foundational expression of the concept of due process in Anglo-American jurisprudence

In the 17th century, when England’s North American colonies were shaping their own fundamental laws, the words of the Magna Carta were worked into them. The basic rights embodied in the Constitution of the United States of America (1789) and the Bill of Rights (1791) echo the charter, and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) can trace its ancestry to the Magna Carta as well.

The essential virtue of the Magna Carta, which has made it comparable in historical importance to the Twelve Tables of ancient Rome, lies not in any individual clause or group of clauses but in the solemn circumstances of its first granting and the comprehensive nature of that grant. 

Thus, the Magna Carta that is commonly remembered is the Magna Carta of King John, and the date that always has been commemorated as its granting is 1215. 

That many clauses were omitted from the charter as it finally appeared on the statute rolls and that new ones had been inserted and some original clauses redrafted have made no difference in the collective memory of this venerable document. Nevertheless, in trying to estimate the influence of the charter on constitutional development in England and elsewhere, it should be borne in mind that, while the drama has never faded from the field of Runnymede, the actual phrases studied by those who fought oppression in 17th-century England or 18th-century America came immediately from the 1217 charter.

Maritime Law

Constitution of the United States of America (1789) 

Magna Carta's 800th Anniversary (2012)

In 2012, David Cameron spent an excruciatingly long two minutes discussing the Magna Carta with David Letterman. The British prime minister struggled to name the location where the iconic English document was signed and the whereabouts of the original copies. But he perked up when describing the charter’s significance. 

“The big moment of the Magna Carta was basically people saying to the king that other people have to have rights”—it was about “the crown not being able to just ride roughshod over everybody,” he said. Then the soaring moment hurtled back to earth. “And the literal translation [of Magna Carta] is what?” Letterman asked. Cameron had no idea.

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