Is the Magna Carta worth the paper its written on? By Shirley Dolan

Shirley Dolan
Shirley Dolan

As the 800th anniverary of the signing of the Magna Carta is winding down, some may be asking what all the fuss was about, and is it worth the paper it is written on. After all, three months after it was signed, King John convinced Pope Innocent III to annul the Great Charter and in less than a year, King John was dead, leaving his nine-year old son, Henry III, as his heir.

So what was it all about, this Magna Carta, or Great Charter? Well, mainly, it was about the landowners, barons, earls, and knights being upset about the high taxes they were being forced to pay. It was also about the monarchs, most notably, the Angevin Kings, Henry II, Richard I, and John ruling as if they were above the law. The barons, in forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta, were seeking some certainty about the way the monarch governed – the king was not to be considered above the rule of law.

John Robson, in his documentary Magna Carta: Our Shared Legacy of Liberty makes the point that the barons were in fact trying to get King John to agree to adhere to rights they had had since before William the Conquerer and they wanted them back. This idea is also presented in David Carpenter’s book Magna Carta.

But did the revolution work? Well, yes, because the cat was out of the bag and the next two kings, Henry III and Edward I were forced to re-issue the Magna Carta for concessions they wanted. In the early 17th century, the Magna Carta was used by Sir Edward Coke to argue against the devine right of kings espoused by the Stuart monarchs, one of which, Charles I was finally beheaded.

Magna Carta has threaded its way through the American Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to the British Library on Magna Carta, in 1915, Helena Normanton (1882-1957), the suffragette and lawyer, claimed that denying women the right to vote was ‘expressly contrary to Magna Carta’. Nelson Mandela referred to the Magna Carta when on trial for his life in 1964. It is said that the Magna Carta inspired Gandhi for liberty of land and called the Indian Relief Act of 1914 ‘the Magna Carta of our liberty in this land’.

So yes, the Magna Carta is worth the paper (or parchment) it’s written on. It is perhaps the greatest symbol of freedom and justice in the free world, and perhaps, in this day and age of over-regulation and high taxes, it is time for another issuance of the Charter to remind our ‘rulers’ that they are not above the law and they are to serve us.

See Professor John Robson’s documentary Magna Carta: Our Shared Legacy of Liberty at

Magna Carta by David Carpenter is available from Amazon at