The Great Charter

I was too young to really appreciate what the document was. It was 1967 and a copy of the Magna Carta was on display at the British Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal. I know I saw it, but I can’t pretend it made any impact.magnacarta1

Fourteen years later I saw another copy (or perhaps it was the same one) on my first trip to England. I saw so much in a short time period; I don’t remember the Magna Carta as well as I remember the Crown Jewels.

It was 800 years ago today that King John fixed his seal on the document that has been the cornerstone of law in the English-speaking world. The rest of the world too really.

As part of the celebrations, Durham Cathedral has loaned one of its copies of the Magna Carta to Canada, where it is currently on display at the Canadian Museum of History, before heading to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto.

Magna Carta was issued on more than one occasion. The reigning monarch at the time being given the opportunity to affirm his agreement to the basic principles established at Runnymede. The copy touring Canada is “recent,” dating from 1300 and signed by King Edward I, but the principles are the same.

I could, if I wanted to quibble, argue that Magna Carta was just an English (Latin language of course) paraphrase of some concepts present in The Bible. It is important though to note that this was the bridge between sacred and secular (not that those terms were used back then) and the beginnings of restrictions on the divine right of kings. The Magna Carta didn’t turn England into a democracy overnight, but without it the country might not have gotten there.

So I will pay the fifteen dollars to see this 715-year-old piece of paper, even though I have seen it before. (Durham does have older ones, but I guess they don’t loan those to us colonials.) I may even try and read it in the original Latin, though my competency in that language has eroded over time and while the penmanship is supposed to be excellent, I still prefer type.

And I will look at the document and think about the evolution of democracy and the struggle against tyranny that exists today. In Canada we are blessed with a robust political system and a vibrant democracy that perhaps is not perfect, but stacks up favorably against any other in the world. (That’s a professional as well as personal opinion – I have a political science degree and have worked in the field.) I have been in other places which were “democratic” in name but rather authoritarian by Canadian standards – countries that have yet to have their Magna Carta moment.

Eight hundred years is a long time. Much of which the Magna Carta dealt with in 1215 is no longer relevant today. That is a good thing – it shows that we have learned a bit from the past.

If you are in Canada this year, why not make the effort and go out and see the Magna Carta for yourself. Or check out a copy in the United Kingdom – it will be on display in several different locations. It is an important part of all of our histories.


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