Magna Carta: charting its 800-year impact

By Andy Walsh

Eight centuries ago, King John of England sealed a treaty to effectively establish English Common Law and bring all men, King and commoner alike, to live subject to the laws of the land.

In commemoration of the Magna Carta's impending 800th anniversary, Melbourne Law School invited one of the subject's foremost experts, legal history scholar Professor Paul Brand to deliver a public lecture on the document's First century in existence.

Magna Carta 

Professor Brand, a Professor of English Legal History at the University of Oxford, presented on the topic "The First Century of Magna Carta and the Law" as this year's Miegunyah Distinguished Visiting Fellow in April.

His speech explored the importance of the iconic document from its initial sealing by King John of England following negotiations with a group of rebellious barons at Runnymede in 1215 to its subsequent reissues in 1216, 1217, 1225, 1297 and 1300. 

Leading up to the document's anniversary, the historian has been involved in a landmark investigation into its history, including providing online translations and commentaries on the text.

He said it was his discovery that learning Latin at school allowed him direct access to primary materials of English medieval law, including the Magna Carta, which sparked his initial interest in the topic.

He has since developed his passion into a career spanning more than four decades.

"The most rewarding aspect of my career has been to have enjoyed the ability to communicate to others through lectures and teaching my enthusiasm for English medieval legal history, and to have had the opportunity of editing important primary materials and writing articles and monographs about aspects of my subjects," Professor Brand said.

The Magna Carta, Latin for "the Great Charter", recorded the terms of a peace treaty between the King and his opponents, establishing the principle that everybody, including the King, was subject to the law.

Professor Brand said with the practice of law then in its early development, the document's impact was not initially realised.

"There were almost no professional lawyers in 1215 and few of the royal justices had the training or the record of judicial activity that would allow them to be characterised as professional," he said.

"When, later in the century, there did come to be professional lawyers and justices, Magna Carta became the specific basis for some civil actions and was cited in litigation by lawyers and justices but with only a small hint that it enjoyed a status different from any other thirteenth-century legislation."

Professor Brand said the document was a fundamental foundational element in English Common Law.

"The absence of any written constitution for England or Britain gives peculiar importance to what can been seen as the nearest thing we have to a foundational document for subsequent English constitutional development," he said.

Magna Carta's legacy is evident beyond English borders; Australia's shared constitutional heritage with Britain has the charter echoed in our own Constitution, with the essence of two of the 1215 version's clauses effectively in law:

  1. No free man shall be taken or imprisoned dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him, nor send upon him, except by the legal judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
  1. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny, or delay right or justice.

Its spirit also resonates within both the United States' Declaration of Independence and the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, today, millions of people across the world evoke and cite its principles of basic freedoms whenever a threat to democracy presents itself.

"Magna Carta has endured for eight centuries because it is the earliest legislation to become part of the written heritage of the Common Law and of common lawyers and, as such, the earliest written statement of various broad principles of the Common Law," Professor Brand said.

"It has had a long history of accretion of meaning to the original text which has allowed later lawyers and judges  to see it as entrenching the right to trial by jury in criminal cases and the right of habeas corpus, things which were not part of what Magna Carta originally meant but which they found helpful in arguing for constitutional liberty."

Making his first visit to Australian shores, Professor Brand believes the significance of one of the founding documents of modern law and democracy will continue to hold its appeal for centuries to come.

"Magna Carta has a good track record of acting as a continuing source of inspiration for a very long period of time," he said.

"I would certainly hope that it will continue to be thought of in that way."

Image: Law Librarian Carole Hinchcliff and Professor Paul Brand hold a replica of the Magna Carta
Photographer: Rachel Tan

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 13, June 2015.