David Starkey looks at the origins of Magna Carta, the document that has underpinned British liberties since it was created in 1215 to check the abuses of King John.
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RAUCOUS CROWD NOISE
Relations between estate
and its people can all too easily break down,
from bickering to riot, from anarchy to bloody revolution.
The rulers, whether they call themselves kings and emperors
or presidents and prime ministers, are arrogant,
power-grabbing and often corrupt, while we, the ruled,
can be disorderly, irrational and bloody-minded.
But, 800 years ago in England, one such crisis -
local, limited, particular -
threw up a document that has become a kind of universal model,
a sort of blueprint.
They didn't get it right first time, but constantly revisited
and readjusted, it has become a working constitution.
Its words still retain their power to quicken the blood, with ideas
to keep governments in check and fill autocratic regimes with fear.
It's called Magna Carta, and it matters as much now as then.
More indeed, perhaps, as we have forgotten so many of its lessons.
This is the River Thames,
and I'm travelling upstream from east to west.
STEAM WHISTLE BLOWS
I'm on this lovely pleasure steamer, and nowadays, indeed,
the river is largely a tourist attraction.
But back in the Middle Ages, it was the superhighway of England.
It's the summer of 1215, and England is bitterly divided about how
it should be governed and, indeed, who should govern it.
It's what we might call a constitutional crisis.
But it has gone beyond words to the very brink of civil war.
Back there, some 20 miles downstream,
is the barons' main camp in London.
And over there, some five miles upstream, is the King's camp
in the magnificent, almost impregnable fortress
of Windsor Castle.
And here is Runnymede.
"A new state of things has begun in England,
"such a strange affair as had never before been heard,
"for the body wished to rule the head
"and the people desired to be masters over the King."
So wrote a monk who witnessed the tense confrontations on these
watery meadows between King John and his rebellious barons.
This stand-off is the very stuff of school history lessons.
In fact, it was just the midpoint of a bitter power struggle that
would threaten to tear England apart
and one that had started several years earlier.
England in the 13th century.
Contrary to our popular perception, this is not some dark age -
quite the reverse.
England is ruled by tiny strips of parchment with
a government of writing and sealing.
It has seen an enormous explosion in sophisticated law, offering
justice, settling disputes, dealing with an increasingly complex world.
But it is this almost insatiable demand for a fairer society
that will bring people to conflict with their monarch, King John.
To offer justice is one of the fundamental
responsibilities of kingship.
And it was one that John,
whose tutor had been a leading judge, found especially congenial.
It was also something that people wanted.
However, law and justice are a two-edged sword.
They're a vital necessity.
On the other hand, they can be so easily perverted into a means
for the King to exercise excessive and arbitrary power
and to delve excessively into his subjects' pockets.
And King John certainly knew how to abuse power.
A ruthless megalomaniac, he was accused of murdering his nephew
and dishonouring his noblemen's wives.
By all accounts, he was a bad king.
For most monastic chroniclers,
John was the very measure of human depravity.
"Foul as it is," one declared,
"hell itself was defiled by the foulness of John."
John's many defects of character - his violent rages, his lusts
and his shifty unreliability - also damaged relations with his barons.
But their principal grievance was to be financial.
John wanted to regain a great continental empire
he had inherited but lost.
The expenditure needed would be enormous.
From 1206, and following the loss of most of his lands in France,
John concentrated on England and on raising and hoarding cash.
He targeted everybody - nobles and townsmen, Jews and the Church -
and he used any and every means.
He was astonishingly successful.
He doubled royal revenue and more,
and by 1212, he had accumulated a gigantic cash hoard
of at least £132,000 in coin, in castle treasuries.
And then he blew the lot.
In the summer of 1212, John lodged an ambitious counterattack
against King Philip Augustus to recapture his lands in France.
But it ended in disaster.
At Bouvines, north of Paris, in the summer of 1214,
John's allies were comprehensively put to flight by the French king.
Very few medieval battles resulted in complete rout,
but this was one of them.
A weakened and impoverished King John returned home
to find his realm in disarray, his angry barons now in open revolt.
This is where the real novelty of 1215 began.
There had been plenty of earlier revolts against royal misgovernment,
but they had taken the form of rebellions in favour
of rival claimants to the throne.
In this winter of 1214-15, however, there were no such rival claimants,
and John's opponents risked being rebels without a cause.
Instead, they took the revolutionary step of rebelling
not in the name of a person, but of an idea.
Led by Robert Fitzwalter,
the self-styled Marshal of the Army of God, the barons decided
they would demand the King restore their ancient rights and liberties.
There were precedents, and talk turned to the
Charter of Liberties granted by Henry I over 100 years previously.
It seemed the perfect solution.
Armed and ready for war, in early January 1215, the barons went to
confront John about their grievances at the Temple Church in London.
John was there under the protection of the immensely rich,
immensely powerful crusading order of the Knights Templar.
The barons entered and demanded John agree to Henry I's
Charter of Liberties and reaffirm by oath their ancient freedoms.
According to one chronicler, he angrily declared he would
never grant them liberties that would render him their slave.
John countered with an oath of his own, by requiring his barons to
reswear their traditional oath of allegiance,
but with an extra clause -
to follow him not only against all men, but also against the Charter.
The two sides were now further apart than ever.
Both now manoeuvred for advantage.
John appealed to Rome, the barons hit back.
They renounced their allegiance to the throne on the 5th of May.
And 12 days later, their forces took London. This was decisive.
The loss of his capital forced John into serious negotiation...
and to Runnymede.
The watery meadows were a convenient midway point
between the two rival forces.
But places between two armed camps,
each bitterly hostile to the other, risked becoming battlefields.
Runnymede was chosen precisely because it couldn't,
as the surrounding land was and, indeed, still... Damn!
..is too wet and too boggy.
There wasn't just one meeting at Runnymede,
but several, as the two sides negotiated terms.
By 10th June, a draft document, not yet Magna Carta
but an outline settlement, was drawn up.
The King then confirmed the settlement, known as the
Articles of the Barons, by ordering his Great Seal to be fixed to it.
And here it is - the very document.
It is headed, "These are the articles which the barons seek
"and the King agrees."
And to show, indeed, to guarantee that the King had agreed to it,
here is his Great Seal, with the King sitting in majesty.
Now, most of the articles are arranged like a shopping list.
They are written very tersely, like a telegram or a tweet,
so that the lines are only half a dozen or a dozen words long.
Now, the barons' demands are very prominent,
but equally, these articles show just how much further the barons
had had to go in appealing outside their own ranks,
promising justice not only to the barons but to all free men.
Well, there's an article that deals with that.
In other words, even in this sort of sketch form,
this series of notes of a committee,
the embryo of Magna Carta shows us that it is so much more
than just an appeal to narrow, aristocratic self-interest.
So what actually did happen on that famous day of 15th June 1215?
It's the date that textbooks celebrate as the signing
of Magna Carta.
Except that it wasn't.
John didn't sign the Charter.
There is no evidence that the King could write,
and, in any case, royal documents weren't authenticated with
the King's signature, but with his seal.
Probably, indeed, to complete the demolition
of the traditional picture, on 15th June 1215,
there wasn't even a charter to sign.
No original sealed copy of Magna Carta survives
and there is no evidence that one ever existed.
Instead, what happened on 15th June was a binding agreement,
solemn on both sides between the King and the barons, that the King
would issue Magna Carta and that the barons would swear fealty in return.
The Articles of the Barons were then quickly transformed
from a rough shopping list into a smooth, continuous,
unambiguous legal form to become...
..Magna Carta, the Great Charter.
In a dense, almost impenetrable Latin text,
some 4,000 words were squeezed just onto one membrane of parchment
made from dried and smoothed sheepskin.
13 copies were produced to be circulated across the realm.
For the barons, the clauses that really mattered in Magna Carta
dealt with the inheritance, marriages and ownership of land.
These may seem remote now, but they established what
half the world, from Russia to China, still lacks -
that the state can't help itself to private property at will.
And then there are the famous clauses which best have come
to symbolise the universal freedoms promised by Magna Carta -
clauses 39 and 40.
"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.
"To no-one will we sell, to no-one deny or delay right or justice."
There was, indeed, there is, something here that really matters.
The sense that Magna Carta protects
and defines those three key fundamental freedoms of the
Anglo-Saxon world - life, liberty and property - is spot on.
With the 800th anniversary, the British Library is mounting
a special Magna Carta exhibition.
The centrepiece - one of the original 1215 copies,
of which only four still survive.
This is a document which is in Latin, a language which,
nowadays, very, very few people can read readily.
Do you think this has an irretrievable
effect of distancing, of separating and making it feel remote?
Well, it is written in medieval Latin
and it is written in medieval handwriting as well, of course.
Which is even worse, yes!
And here it is on this parchment made from sheepskin
-and it isn't the most...
-In fact, it is an actual sheep, isn't it?
We should see the head there, we should see the legs
-on either side and the tail sticking out there.
And nobody could say that it is the most beautiful collection item
that we have, but I never fail to be amazed
by the impression that it makes on visitors to the library
and how much people value the opportunity to be in proximity to this incredibly...
The sacred text, yes!
..incredibly famous document.
And people do almost treat it with the sort of reverence that you
might expect of a sacred text.
But, back in 1215,
Magna Carta came close to becoming an obscure footnote in history.
Publicly, John had accepted Magna Carta
and reconciled himself with his subjects.
Privately, he burned with resentment and threw a characteristic
fit of rage, gnashing his teeth, as a chronicler reports,
scowling with his eyes and gnawing on the very twigs and branches.
He would not keep his word a second longer than he had to.
John immediately appealed to Rome
and to Pope Innocent III to have Magna Carta annulled.
One clause in particular was difficult for John to stomach.
Clause 61 set out how Magna Carta was to be enforced.
It set up a committee of 25 barons to hold John to every last jot
and tittle by any and every means, including the levying of war.
Now, the idea was seductive but it proved to be disastrous,
because it tried to protect Magna Carta by effectively
destroying royal sovereignty.
And no king, least of all John, could possibly agree to that.
Pope Innocent responded swiftly to John's request to have
Magna Carta quashed.
He immediately spotted the threat it posed to all autocrats,
He sent a firm reply in a papal bull.
Magna Carta, the bull says, had been "extorted by force
"and violence, such as would've affrighted the most courageous man.
"It was unjust, illegal, harmful to royal rights
"and shameful to the English people."
So, a mere ten weeks after those heady June days at Runnymede,
Magna Carta had been declared null and void and of non-effect
by the highest earthly authority known to medieval man.
And, do you know, it made not a jot of difference
to the behaviour of anybody involved.
Both sides now prepared for civil war.
John recruited mercenaries, whilst the barons resorted
to the traditional tactic of backing
an alternative claimant to the throne.
In a measure of their desperation,
they offered the crown to a Frenchman, Prince Louis.
Louis had a vague hereditary claim
but his real strength was that he was the anybody-but-John candidate.
In the invasion we rarely talk about,
Louis arrived in London with 7,000 French troops.
Whilst John travelled north to places like here at Headingley,
to recapture the castles of his rebellious barons.
The fate of Magna Carta now hung in the balance
and it was fate that would deal the decisive blow.
On 19 October 1216, during a violent storm,
John died unexpectedly.
At Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire -
his enemies alleged from a surfeit of peaches.
His nine-year-old son was crowned Henry III.
As he was underage, the real power lay
with his regent, William the Marshal, himself a baron.
He immediately re-issued Magna Carta, but with a difference.
This is the tomb of William the Marshal, Earl of Pembroke.
He was the most successful jouster of the age
and arguably the man who, as regent for the boy king Henry,
saved England, the Plantagenet dynasty and Magna Carta itself.
William the Marshal wisely saw the clause for a committee of barons to
enforce Magna Carta was dangerously unworkable and stripped it out.
The result was an astonishing reversal of fortune.
Henry, burdened with none of his father's political baggage,
proved to be a much more attractive king than John.
Whilst Magna Carta,
hitherto discredited as the occasion of civil war, factional strife
and foreign intervention, was suddenly transformed
into the squeaky-clean manifesto of an optimistic new regime.
Not all the barons were convinced by the regime change
and some fought on.
But Marshal, famed not only for his political acumen but also
for his prowess in combat, routed them at the Battle of Lincoln Fair.
Louis and his troops fled back to the safety of France.
Peace and stability were restored to the realm.
Then, in 1225, when Henry III was old enough to assume
full executive power, Magna Carta was reissued it its definitive form.
This time, the charter emphasised that it was granted
by the king's full and free consent.
The taint of war and coercion
which had dogged the first Magna Carta was gone.
The charter had achieved something truly revolutionary
and almost by accident.
The great charter, despite its name,
contained no great general statement of principle.
However, its multitude of detailed clauses did imply one -
that the king, however great his power,
however much the law was his law,
was, finally, UNDER the law.
Not surprisingly, kings, the good ones as well as the bad ones,
found the idea difficult to accept
and it would be disputed for centuries in peace and war.
However, Magna Carta quietly,
but with enormous cumulative effect, laid the foundations
of the two key institutions
that in time would bridle the English monarchy.
They were both based here in the heart of royal England,
Colloquially, we call this building here the Houses of Parliament.
Actually, it's the Palace of Westminster.
But it was the principal and indeed the only palace
properly so-called of the medieval kings of England.
How it becomes a seat of Parliament is a very long story.
But the story, like so much of our political structure,
begins with Magna Carta.
The demands of the great charter led to an assembly of bishops
and barons who met to approve taxation
and sanction its collection.
This assembly was the embryo of the modern Parliament,
with its two houses of lords and commoners.
The precedent of this relatively painless way of raising taxation
was irresistible for revenue-hungry kings
like Edward I and Edward III,
with their perpetual endless wars
against the Welsh, the Scots and the French.
Parliament used the grant of taxation
to extort concessions from the Crown.
Kings didn't like it, but if they wanted the money -
and they almost always did - they had to lump it.
Monarchs also found themselves grappling with the new idea
of a legal system whose first home was Westminster Hall here.
Magna Carta called for professional judges
and a fixed place for the law courts.
Before, kings administered justice themselves
and the courts moved with the king. Magna Carta changed that.
The king's law was becoming the common law of England.
For hundreds of years, Magna Carta determined the rules of engagement
between the king and his subjects, but it was not to last.
Four centuries on from the meeting at Runnymede, England found herself
in another crisis more bloody and more protracted
than even the confrontation with King John.
On the throne was Charles I.
The second king of the house of Stuart, his reign began in 1625,
but it's hard to imagine two more different men.
John, lecherous, murderous and systematically dishonest,
was a pantomime villain, whilst Charles,
dignified and devoted to his family, was the very model of a good man.
All of which raises some awkward questions -
why was such a good man such a bad king?
And why does Magna Carta wake from slumber to play
a key role in these tragic events?
Those great creations of Magna Carta, Parliament
and the common law courts still flourished,
but the real locus of royal government had moved to
different institutions, to the court, the council and the church.
And to a different place, the Palace of Whitehall.
This splendid interior now known as the Banqueting House,
was the principal reception room of Charles's Palace of Whitehall.
In the very latest classical style, it's designed by Inigo Jones,
the most fashionable architect of the day.
Whilst the ceiling is painted by Sir Peter Paul Rubens,
the most famous contemporary artist.
But Rubens' ceiling is more than lavish decoration,
it also has a powerful political message.
The central oval represents the ascent to heaven
of Charles I's father, James I.
James declared that
"the state of monarchy is the most supremest thing on Earth,
"even by God himself."
Kings are called gods.
Ruben's genius transmutes James's words into soaring,
swirling imagery in which kings not only reign by divine right
but are divinities themselves.
And in Whitehall, Charles could be forgiven
for thinking that Rubens' extravagant painting
told no more than the simple truth.
But only a few hundred yards away, there was another palace,
a very different palace - the Palace of Westminster.
Here, the king summoned and dissolved Parliament,
but without the agreement of the Lords and Commons,
he could do nothing.
So, who was the real King of England?
The Magna Carta limited king of Westminster or Charles,
absolute monarch of Whitehall?
Normally, the choice never needed to be made,
but there was one area of conflict which threatened to destabilise everything.
The tension had been present ever since the Reformation
when Henry VIII made the English king head of the English Church,
giving the monarchy huge new powers.
Under Charles I, it became acute, since the King
and his leading subjects disagreed fundamentally about religion.
The King wanted a ceremonious religion,
that his opponents both feared and denounced as Roman Catholic.
His subjects, on the other hand, wanted a stripped down,
radical Protestantism that the King sneeringly dismissed as Puritan.
With the fire fanned by this underlying tension about religion,
relations between Charles and the House of Commons quickly broke down.
Parliament refused to agree to taxes
to pay for Charles' military adventures.
Charles, desperate for money, demanded customs duties
and forced loans and when a few brave people refused to pay,
he imprisoned them and imposed martial law.
But one man thought he had the solution to the impasse -
Sir Edward Coke.
Coke was Lord Chief Justice
and one of the most successful lawyers ever.
He was also a brutal prosecutor, leading the case
against Sir Walter Raleigh and the Gunpowder conspirators.
Coincidentally, Coke's legal practice was in the temple
which had become one of the Inns of Court.
Coke was the law.
Naturally, as a proud as well as principled man,
he thought that the law should be supreme.
So, just like the barons who confronted King John
on this very spot long ago when it was the headquarters
of the Knights Templar, Coke turned to Magna Carta
to bridle another overweening king.
On 17th May 1628, Sir Edward Coke rose in the House of Commons
and declared that Magna Carta is such a fellow,
that he will have no sovereign.
The words were deliberately, dangerously, disturbingly bold.
The sovereign was the king. Now Coke was declaring there was
another greater sovereign, Magna Carta,
which, as fundamental law,
neither Parliament nor the King himself could touch.
Coke took the key principles of Magna Carta
and tried to turn them into constitutional law,
into what would become known as the Petition of Right.
Charles resisted as vehemently as John had fought off Magna Carta.
But, likewise in vain.
Desperate for a Parliamentary grant of money,
Charles gave his assent to the petition on 7th June 1628,
though probably in as bad faith as John.
In 1629, Charles did away with Parliament and the law
and lawyers, contrary to what Coke hoped, did nothing to stop him.
Matters came to a head in the summer of 1642, when Charles
raised his standard over Nottingham and declared war on Parliament.
The bloody clash followed that would tear England apart.
Though it would take seven years, eventually the king was beaten
and for the first time in history, in 1649,
an English king would be put on public trial
under the watchful eyes of Cromwell's New Model Army.
Charles was brought under armed guard into the Great Hall
at Westminster here.
The king was dressed entirely in black,
with the silver star of the Order of the Garter on his shoulder
and its blue ribbon round his neck.
He kept his hat firmly on throughout,
as did his judges in a sartorial stand-off of mutual contempt.
They, for his office of King, he, for their claim to be his judges.
Worse was to come.
As a prosecuting counsel rose, Charles tapped him on the shoulder
with his silver topped cane and commanded him to hold.
The counsel ignored him.
Then, as the charges were read out,
the top fell off Charles' cane.
The King looked round, expecting that somebody would pick it up.
Nobody did. Instead, he, the King, had to stoop to retrieve it.
The charge continued that he had employed a tyrannical power
to rule according to his will and to overthrow the rights
and liberties of the people.
Charles' response was that a monarch was not subject to
earthly authority and he refused to enter a plea.
But here in the Great Hall, legalities were soon set aside.
The show trial found Charles Stuart guilty.
He was sentenced to death for crimes against the people.
The place of his execution was quite deliberate,
outside the Banqueting House.
Passing under the great Rubens ceiling,
and his father ascending to heaven, Charles stepped from a window
directly onto a high scaffold at the front of the building.
This time, it had taken a civil war and the beheading of a king
to enforce the principles of Magna Carta.
But the resort to violence destroyed the freedom
it sought to protect, leading to a military dictatorship
under Lord Protector Cromwell,
who proved just as despotic as any monarch
and who famously denounced Magna Carta as Magna Farta.
The restoration of the Stuart monarchy after Cromwell's death
seemed a blessed relief.
However, religious tensions resurfaced
when James II secretly converted to Catholicism and then
married a Catholic, sparking panic among the Protestant elite.
It seemed as though the bad old days of the Civil War had returned.
But James II, in contrast with his father,
Charles I's iron resolve, lost his nerve and fled abroad.
The royal family indivisibly united in the Civil War split
with James' daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange,
leading the resistance.
The result was a bloodless coup which opened the way to a radically
new political settlement, an updated version of Magna Carta called
The Bill of Rights in deference to Coke's Petition of Right.
The crown was offered to William
and Mary on condition that they accepted its terms.
On the 13th February 1689,
it was back to the Banqueting House for the denouement of what became
known as the Glorious Revolution.
William and Mary took their place under the canopy on the dais,
the Lords, to the right, and the Commons, to the left,
led by their respective speakers, approached the steps of the throne.
The clerk read out the Bill of Rights
and a nobleman offered William and Mary the crown.
William accepted it and the pair were proclaimed King
and Queen to the sound of trumpets.
Nothing would ever be quite the same again.
England or Great Britain as it would soon become
with union with Scotland, had exchanged the sovereignty of kings,
not, as Coke would have wished, for the sovereignty of the law,
but for another sovereignty, that of Parliament.
However, Coke's dream for Magna Carta as fundamental law didn't die.
It was to change its identity and move far away from its birthplace.
Runnymede is the most English of places
and Magna Carta, the most English of events.
But what perhaps is most English of all,
is that there is nothing much to mark the spot
of one of the most famous events in human history.
Nothing English, but there is this.
It's erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association
to commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under the law.
It's here because Magna Carta matters in America, too.
It's our very first English export there, because Magna Carta was
carried in the minds of the English colonists themselves.
The settlers came here to this wild
and untamed land for many different reasons.
Some were economic migrants,
some were escaping religious persecution back home.
But they all thought of themselves as English, bringing with them
the rights of Englishmen as they set up their Little Englands
across the sea.
From the beginning, the idea was formally written into their laws.
Starting with the Charter of Virginia,
drafted by Edward Coke himself in 1606,
the settlers were given the same rights as if they had been abiding
and born within this, our realm of England.
And the Ark of the Covenant of those English rights
was Magna Carta, which retained all its old subversive power
as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
But these rights were to be turned on their colonial masters
in one of the great upheavals in world history.
In 1765, the government of King George III
imposed a tax on the sale of paper.
The notorious Stamp Act produced an immediate outcry that it was
against Magna Carta and the natural rights of Englishmen.
Tensions between the governed and the governors
escalated into a demand for independence, soon all-out war.
As the conflict raged, one American patriot, George Mason wrote,
"We claim nothing but the Liberty and Privileges of Englishmen,
"in the same degree as if we continued among our brethren
"in Great Britain."
Soon it became clear to those
who would become known as the Founding Fathers
that they would have to draft their own Magna Carta.
This elegantly understated Georgian building,
built as the seat of government of Pennsylvania,
is America's Runnymede.
And it is here America's Founding Fathers, principal among them,
Thomas Jefferson, whose cane still rests across a desk,
ratified that most precious of American documents -
the Declaration of Independence.
But alongside the Declaration's thrillingly new
or at least newish claim,
that all men are created equal
and endowed with certain inalienable rights,
the declaration also uses a much older language,
as old, indeed, as Magna Carta which Jefferson consciously invokes.
Like another King John, Jefferson accused George III
and his government of taxing without consent,
interfering with freedom of trade and punishing in life,
limb and property without due process of law.
The Founding Fathers sat at these tables
and being 18th-century gentlemen,
they wore powder, wigs and knee breeches,
but they were also substantial landowners,
masters of dozens of slaves, and so,
like the great land-owning barons at Runnymede,
they saw themselves as cutting a tyrant down to size.
Today, Americans still take their history, and therefore ours,
Magna Carta was not only to provide much of the rhetoric
of the American Revolution,
the Great Charter also remains fundamental
to the American Constitution
and the everyday conduct of American government itself.
I'm here in the crypt of the American Capitol in Washington.
Above me is one of the biggest, most impressive
and most famous buildings in the world.
It's the seat of the American Congress or Parliament.
To one side is the Senate chamber, to the other
is the House of Representatives,
and directly above me is the central lobby or rotunda,
with its huge, massive dome.
Down here in the crypt is this - it's a golden copy of Magna Carta,
complete with John's seal, also in gold,
and it stands as a kind of intellectual foundation,
timeless and incorruptible
for the soaring structure of American government
and political ambition above.
For while the American Revolution
rejected English political authority,
it did not reject the authority of English law.
And to this day, Magna Carta,
with all its clauses, including the removal of fish-weirs on the Medway,
stands in full on the statute books of 17 of the 50 states.
The institutions of Magna Carta also took root.
Congress, where I've just been, is the Parliament.
The Senate is the Lords
and the House of Representatives is the Commons.
Whilst the White House is the seat of the President,
who is King George III without his wig.
But this is novel and has no real English equivalent.
It's the Supreme Court, and its cast bronze doors have a story to tell.
The four panels on the left-hand door
deal with the origins of law in the ancient world,
but here, on the right-hand door, three out of the four panels
represent the actual origins of the Supreme Court in English law.
Down at the bottom, of course, we've got Magna Carta - John and a baron.
Here, we've got the great lawgiver English king, Edward I.
And up there, on the third panel,
we have Sir Edward Coke confronting James I,
and it's Coke who really matters.
Coke's attempt in 1628 to use the Petition of Right
to make Magna Carta fundamental law inviolable by Parliament
or by the King failed in England,
but it succeeded in America where the Founding Fathers
made the Constitution effectively untouchable,
fundamental law to be interpreted not by Congress,
still less by the President, but by the judges of the Supreme Court.
And it is to Magna Carta
that the Supreme Court judges turn again and again...
From 1790 to the present,
it has been cited an astonishing 400 times.
But Magna Carta is not only a mantra in the Supreme Court.
It is a ready-made banner, quickly raised in the political arena.
As was the case when another monarch -
only this time it was a president, Richard Nixon -
thought he was above the law.
I have been guided by the principle that the law
must deal fairly with every man.
Seven centuries have now passed
since the English barons proclaimed the same principle
by compelling King John at the point of a sword
to accept the great doctrine of Magna Carta.
In 1974, facing impeachment
over his involvement in the Watergate scandal,
Nixon resigned rather than face the wrath of Magna Carta.
But in more recent times, a much more threatening shadow
has been thrown over all our constitutional liberties.
With the attack on the Twin Towers,
the Bush administration announced America was at war -
war on terror.
For the foreseeable future,
the security of the Western world was paramount.
Rights and freedoms - for which the war was ostensibly being waged -
would have to take a back seat.
Accusations of torture,
waterboarding and extraordinary rendition
hit the very heart of the United States Government.
But there were those who were prepared to challenge the executive
in the name of Magna Carta and the Constitution.
As suspected terrorists were interned in Guantanamo Bay,
lawyers, working for free,
brought cases against the Bush administration
for unlawful detention without trial.
One of the key lawyers, David Remes, visited the camp.
You were shocked by Guantanamo?
I was shocked, I was overwhelmed... It was...
The men were so abject.
They were in despair and the power exercised over them
by the prison authorities was absolute.
Were you ashamed?
No, I was outraged.
You know, we come here, we see those proud phrases
in which liberty and freedom and right and God and nature
are plastered over these huge marble monuments.
Didn't the hypocrisy stink in your nostrils?
And what did you do?
I represented these men in court,
I fought to have them released, and...
I hope that the lawyers' efforts and communications
had an influence. I believe they did.
The Supreme Court DID rule
that detention without trial was unconstitutional,
repeatedly citing Magna Carta.
But victory was short-lived.
A lesser appeals court bypassed the ruling
by declaring that in time of war, ordinary rules do not apply.
The Supreme Court apparently ruled in favour of these men
and yet nothing has been done.
Guantanamo is still there.
The shame is still there.
If I'd been able to sit down with one of those judges
of the Court of Appeal, how would they have justified it?
Well, the principle would be that the courts have no function,
no valid role to play in executive decisions in the context of war.
At the same time that Remes was fighting his Guantanamo cases,
Britain, too, was facing a parallel challenge
to its legal and constitutional integrity.
In 2008, at the height of the crisis,
and then Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, resigned.
This Sunday is the anniversary of Magna Carta.
The document that guarantees
that most fundamental of British freedoms -
the right not to be imprisoned by the state without charge or reason.
But yesterday this House decided to allow the state
to lock up potentially innocent citizens
for up to six weeks without charge.
The view that the then Government was eroding piece by piece
all sorts of our civil liberties,
mostly through altering the structure of the law...
How long you could be held without charge
was the issue at point there
and it struck me as a grotesque assault on liberties...
Directly on Magna Carta...
Directly on Magna Carta, directly on delay of justice,
directly on the things that we... we believe in...
And they're things that our country has become famous for.
But the impact of David Davis' own little act of jihadism,
of political suicide, was short-lived.
We have already taken a wide range of measures,
including stopping suspects from travelling to the region
by seizing passports...
Every passing month brings yet more infringement of personal liberties
in the name of the "war on terror".
..If we are going to deal with extremists of all sorts
in our society and uphold our British values, that we are able to take...
What does constitute suspicious activity that would warrant
that phone call to you?
Is it possible that we've become complacent
about our long tradition of freedom from arbitrary state authority?
Are we sacrificing more and more of our liberties
at the altar of "security",
and perhaps even sleepwalking towards authoritarianism?
Why as a nation that was once so assertive,
so sensitive about freedom, why have we become so casual?
Why are we prepared apparently to sacrifice it without question?
Well, it comes down to this problem that people think that security
is more important than freedom
and future historians will look back on our time
and say the great success of Al-Qaeda was not the people they killed,
it's the way they transformed the Western states,
turned them from being incredibly freedom-orientated societies
to being rather more introverted, nervous societies.
So, is it time to reawaken Magna Carta from its great slumber?
Well, on past record, perhaps not.
Magna Carta has often proved quite impotent.
Henry VIII paid scant attention to its first clause
to protect the freedom of the Church.
Nor did its ringing declaration -
"To no-one will we sell, delay or deny justice" -
stop internment in Northern Ireland or Guantanamo Bay.
So, in this day and age,
is Magna Carta really little more than a myth?
I spoke to one of Sir Edward Coke's professional descendants,
retired Chief Justice for England and Wales, Lord Judge.
Occasionally people will say that Magna Carta's a myth,
it didn't make all the provisions that people attribute to it.
And in that sense they're right, Magna Carta did not.
But when we think that what we regard as precious to us -
precious liberties, precious freedoms are threatened -
we think Magna Carta.
It's a banner, it summarises our belief
that government should be controlled.
It summarises our belief in equality before the law.
Whether that's historically accurate or not,
it means that Magna Carta is living,
and if something is living, it isn't a myth.
Magna Carta makes no grand, general statements
about liberty and freedom.
It's not got right first time.
It has to be reworked again and again.
And yet, the outcome of this process of trial and error
is a profound change of political behaviour.
Consultation and accommodation between ruler and ruled
ceased to be exceptional crisis management and have become instead
a matter of habit, of how we English do things.
But in this 800th anniversary year, Parliament,
our habits of political freedom
and the idea of England herself,
are all facing acute challenge...
..perhaps the most fundamental of modern times.
Will the memory of Magna Carta help to carry us through again?
It would be nice to think so.
We take our liberties for granted. They seem absolute and untouchable. But they are the result of a series of violent struggles fought over 800 years that, at times, have threatened to tear our society apart. On the frontline was a document originally inked on animal skin - Magna Carta.
Distinguished constitutional historian David Starkey looks at the origins of the Great Charter, created in 1215 to check the abuses of King John - and how it nearly died at birth. He explores its subsequent deployment, its contribution to making everyone - even the monarch - subject to the rule of law, and how this quintessentially English document migrated to the North American colonies and eventually became the foundation of the US constitution.
Magna Carta has become a universal symbol of individual freedom against the tyranny of the state, but with ever-tightening government control on our lives, is it time to resurrect it?
Starkey has a special encounter with an original Magna Carta manuscript at the British Library, one of only four from 1215 to survive. He also examines other unique medieval manuscripts that trace the tumultuous history of Magna Carta, the Article of the Barons listing their demands in June 1215, and the papal bull declaring Magna Carta null and void less than two months after it was sealed.