10 Surprises about Magna Carta on its 800th Birthday


The document that laid the foundation for democracy was sanctioned by Britain’s worst monarch, “Bad King John.” (Nat Geo News)

Learn more about Magna Carta with our brand-new, short-and-sweet article!

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit, and don’t forget to quiz yourself and your students on the “week that was” in our latest Quiz Connection.

Note: Current Event Connections is slowing down for the summer. Our column will continue to appear once or twice a week until mid-August. If you have an idea for a Current Event Connection, or want to share one of your MapMaker Interactive maps, let us know in the comments!

Yes, Monty Python fans, the videos in this post are narrated by none other than Terry Jones, genuine medievalist.

Discussion Ideas


  • The British Library and Magna Carta Project have organized dazzling celebrations for Magna Carta on its 800th birthday this year. Why is this trivial peace treaty for a minor rebellion still being honored 800 years later?
    • Magna Carta is widely regarded as nothing less than a founding document of Western democracy.
      • Specifically, the idea of all “freemen”—even a monarch—being accountable under the law is traced to Magna Carta’s 39th and 40th clauses:
        • 39: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way; nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”
        • 40: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay, right or justice.”
    • The judicial principles of Magna Carta are reflected in modern British legal policy, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


  • According to our article, Magna Carta did not have an immediate impact. The British historian Simon Schama says Magna Carta is less “the birth certificate of modern democracy” than “the death certificate of despotism.” (Watch from about 45:00 here.) A leading legal scholar thinks “its authority and influence may derive more from what people think it said, rather than that which it actually contained.” Another is more blunt: Stop Revering Magna Carta. Why are we all raining on Magna Carta’s birthday parade?
    • Magna Carta didn’t really apply to a lot of people. (I’d like to think the meeting at Runnymede went down like this, but it probably didn’t.)
      • The barons, sure, but there were only about 40 of them. Most men in medieval England were villeins—unfree peasants who had to appeal to landowners to seek justice, Magna Carta or no Magna Carta. That didn’t change for quite a while.
        • And those are just men. Women and Jews, for instance, are mentioned in Magna Carta, but not among those granted liberties by law; their liberties are granted by landowners.
    • Magna Carta is kind of vague on the liberties themselves: There is actually nothing specific about jury trials or habeas corpus.


  • How is Magna Carta relevant in our online world? Take a look at Magna Carta: My Digital Rights, a program to help students consider their rights and responsibilities online. Exploring topics such as free speech, censorship, cyberbullying, and surveillance, the project provides teachers with a range of lessons plans, films, commentaries, and collection items from the British Library.
Vote here for the freedom, access, and privacy clauses you think should be included in a digital Magna Carta.
Vote here for the freedom, access, and privacy clauses you think should be included in a digital Magna Carta.



Nat Geo: What’s the Magna Carta? 10 Surprises on Its 800th Birthday

Nat Geo: This Day in Geographic History: Magna Carta

British Library: Magna Carta and Teaching Resources

British Library: My Digital Rights and Teaching Resources

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