Promoting 'British values': Why is Magna Carta important?

David Cameron has set out plans to teach all school pupils about the Magna Carta. Credit: REUTERS

A year from today will mark 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, one of history's most important legal documents, and the basis of English law.

The Prime Minister David Cameron said every child in the UK should be taught about the charter as part of a drive to promote British values.

Read: Schools to teach Magna Carta in 'British Values' push

Why is it so important?

The creation of Magna Carta in 1215 marked the first time limits were imposed on a king of England's powers, making it clear that the king was subject to the law, not above it.

How did it come to be?

The charter was forced upon King John by a baron rebellion in 1215. The barons stood up against John's oppressive government and demanded a charter of liberties. In that sense, Magna Carta was a "practical solution" to a political crisis, researchers from the British Library say.

What does the charter say?

Magna Carta, or the "The Great Charter", is a legal document that includes 63 clauses, majority of which deal with feudal rights and the justice system, limiting the King's powers.

While the 800-year old document is often celebrated for its emphasis of civil liberties, at the time of its signing in 1215, the charter aimed to serve the interests of only the highest ranks of feudal society.

King John reigned between 1199 and 1216. Credit: Bob Thomas/Popperfoto

What are the Magna Carta values the Prime Minister is talking about?

The document is often interpreted as a declaration of individual liberties and equality before the law.

Other countries' constitutions trace their origins to the principles of Magna Charta. However, the original document only applied to the wealthy landowners and left out the unfree peasants called villeins, who made up majority of the population.

And here are some things you may not know about Magna Carta:

  • Magna Carta was never signed by the king. In line with medieval customs, the charter was authenticated with a seal. In fact, many historians say that there is no evidence King John was actually able to write.

  • Only three of the original 63 clauses of Magna Carta are still valid today. They guarantee the liberties of the English Church; confirm the privileges of towns; and establish the right to a trial by jury.

  • Magna Carta was written on parchment - a piece of treated sheep skin. Parchment was very expensive, which is why the writing is very small compared to today's standards.

  • Before Magna Carta, the king had the right to sell the widows and daughters of barons who died.

  • Only four copies of Magna Carta survived. Two copies are in the British Library, one in Salisbury Cathedral and one in Lincoln castle.(source: The British Library)

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