Today after my son and I woke up, we packed ourselves into the car and headed on a three hour drive north of here to visit Edmonton. A copy of Magna Carta is on display for the 800th Anniversary of its first signing.
Magna Carta means “the Great Charter”. It’s sometimes oversold and sometimes undersold in terms of it’s historical meaning. It is not, as sometimes told, the foundation of all of English Law. Most of the provisions have been repealed or diminished in importance. However there are four incredibly importance principles that trace directly back to Magna Carta.
First, no one, not even the King, is above the law of the land. Every single person in the land deserves equal treatment under the law. Always and without exception.
Second is the principle of habeas corpus - the principal that one’s self should not be held without charge.
Trial by a jury of one’s peers was established and is still held today.
And a woman could not be forced to marry against her will, forcing her to cede her property, one of the earliest examples of women's rights.
It was not a magic document that made life better for all people. But it is a document that is foundational to building our current law. Unquestionably we, as citizens, draw benefit today. No one can properly claim immunity to the law. No monarch, prime minister or president can abrogate a law at their whim. There are rules by which we change our very rules, and Magna Carta is one of the earliest of documents to establish those rules in writing.
Habeas corpus is still debated, as recently as the G20 protests in Toronto or with respect to prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay. On the whole, in Canada one is not hauled to prison without charges laid in a timely manner and the courts, although grindingly slow at times, at least make attempt at a speedy trial.
Trial by jury remains today. Juries remain imperfect, sometimes rendering incorrect or skewed verdicts. But all in all, I believe a jury trial remains a proper and beneficial tool in our justice system.
The life of a woman did not instantly change and become a life of equity and abundance in 1215, and our society continues to struggle with equality in gender balance.
Why travel three hours to see an ancient text written in Latin that I could not even read?
If you value even some of the above values, you have Magna Carta to thank. Should you be aggrieved by bad law, you should remember Magna Carta and consider that binding every citizen under the law will survive bad kings and rulers - in this case for 800 years. Bad laws will be overturned and together we as citizens will forge a better future for ourselves. Every citizen in every country that holds credence to Magna Carta derives some of their freedom to a group of English Barons forcing King John to accept an unpalatable agreement. This is not a document derived from a Kumbaya moment, this is literally the peace and freedoms won from war. When Canadians talk about defending freedom and liberty in war, this is precisely the earliest of the agreements we talk about.
Your life as it is stems directly and indirectly from a parchment signed 800 years ago. If that is not compelling, I don’t know what could convince you.
Secondly, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a copy of this magnificent document. The truth: I’ve had two opportunities in my life. In the late 1980’s a copy of Magna Carta was displayed at the Nickel Museum at the University of Calgary and I missed it. I have regretted it ever since. I was determined to not miss this opportunity. Even better because I was able to take my son and I’m sure it had a positive impression on him.
Go if you can, and go quickly because it will not be here much longer. It is at the Federal Building on the grounds of the Alberta Legislature until December 29, 2015. If you can make it in the next two days, seriously go.
You may face a line up to get into the hall. It’s worth the wait. We were in line about 30 minutes, the line was somewhat longer by the time we left. I salute each and every person waiting. I saw a true assortment of every Canadian in that line today, and every being there deserved the equal treatment meted out from Magna Carta. Only 50 people are allowed in the theatre in order to keep temperature and humidity proper for the parchment. You will enter and circle clockwise, seeing a display explaining the times and circumstance when the charter was signed. I knew the story, I just wanted to see the parchment itself. Don’t touch the cases, don’t take photographs, just go to enjoy being bathed in history.
First you’ll come across the Charter of the Forest - in it’s own right a document probably as practical if not moreso than Magna Carta. You’ll see Magna Carta to your right, but we held off and circulated. The next section speaks to your values and invites you to consider which are most important to you. Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest are ultimately about values that bind us all. Take a moment to reflect on what bridges 800 years.
The translations are posted, but I have already read it (and planned to purchase a translated print) and there was an opening at the case showing Magna Carta, so my son pulled me towards it and I admired the script. It remains ancient and beautiful, with significance even today. There and then, my eyes took in 800 years of justice and core values of our society.
It was so worth the trip.
A few notes: There are many existing copies of Magna Carta. The one I observed today was from Durham Cathedral. This copy was made in 1300 and is beautiful in it’s own right. My humblest and deepest gratitude to Durham Cathedral for allowing us this great honour. May I see it again in situ.
Lastly, if you are one of my British friends reading this, if you have never taken the time to visit a copy, please do so. Magna Carta is a treasure beyond value and a gift to mankind and deserves to be honoured as such.
As a bonus: The Legislature looked beautiful today under a cloudy sky.