The Great Charter

IMG_0821 cropped and correctedThere are very few documents that have such global fame and influence as the Magna Carta. It was first drawn up by King John and the English barons on 15 June 1215 and therefore celebrates its 800th birthday today.

Magna Carta is feted as an international symbol of freedom and rights. Most of its 63 clauses are no longer valid in UK law, but its greatest legacy is that it established the principle of the rule of law. This principle established that the ruling government, or monarch, must obey the law like every other citizen, later a fundamental tenet of democracy. While it did not enshrine civil liberties, arguably it was a first step on the long and yet-to-be-completed journey.

At the time, however, it was never intended as a constitutional document. It was drawn up to address the grievances of the day – a peace treaty cobbled together between a king and his barons who were at risk of nudging each other into civil war. Few of its signatories could have imagined its later international legacy.

The Magna Carta was also not a static document, but was re-issued a number of times in the following years, by two different kings (and one regent) and for a variety of reasons, the last time being in 1300. A special version, the Magna Carta Hibernae, was even created for Ireland in 1216 with ‘Dublin’ substituted for ‘London’ in the text – unfortunately the original was a victim of the 1922 fire at the Four Courts.

IMG_0826M&ARL holds a copy of the 1300 edition of the ‘Magna Carta Inspeximus of Edward I’ within TCD MS 2352 (folios 5-14), which also contains further contemporary statutes of England. The volume itself is tiny, smaller than most mobile phones, which raises the questions ‘who would have owned such a thing’ and ‘how would it have been used?’ One theory held by M&ARL staff is that it could have been made for a lawyer, its diminutive format making it a useful portable reference work. A similar copy of the Statutes of England, beginning with the Magna Carta, is at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, and is known to have been used by law students.

IMG_0820 croppedThe Trinity copy has an interesting provenance. It was donated to the Library in the early twentieth century, but had previously been owned by at least two famous collectors; the 4th Earl of Ashburnham in the nineteenth century, Tom Martin of Palgrave in the eighteenth century and possibly Peter le Neve in the late seventeenth century.

A half-day symposium entitled ‘Magna Carta and the Making of a Metropolis’ will take place at the Wood Quay Venue, Dublin City Council on 2 July 2015.

Estelle Gittins

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