Monday marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, a document widely believed to be one of the most important in history.
The Magna Carta, sealed on June 15, 1215 in Runnymede, England, laid the groundwork for many of the freedoms that Americans enjoy today. It outlined the fundamental concepts of liberty and became the basis of constitutions all over the globe.
The landmark document was drafted by rebels in England to curb the abusive power of their ruler, King John. As the History Channel notes, Magna Carta secured liberties for England’s elite class by protecting due process and barring absolute monarchy. The Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215 (although it was reinstated and revised at later dates), becoming the first written constitution in Europe. The concepts and ideals of the Magna Carta traveled with settlers to America and became the foundation for our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The History Channel playfully describes the Magna Carta as “a rare medieval manuscript that gets equal love from Supreme Court justices, human rights advocates and the rapper Jay-Z.” (In case you’re wondering about that last one, in 2013 Jay-Z named his 12th studio album Magna Carta Holy Grail)
So how do you celebrate the birthday of this rock star of historic documents? If you’re in the United Kingdom, you launch a Magna Carta anniversary website complete with a countdown clock, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. You send copies to all the schools and issue a commemorative stamp. You list resources for teachers and link to the national curriculum framework in England. And you plan events and afternoon teas to reflect on your freedoms and liberties.
In the United States, the birthday celebration is less spectacular. But there are still many opportunities to mark the occasion. Most significantly, a Magna Carta Day on Monday at the National Archives. Events include a book talk, panel discussion, and even a birthday cake (the first 200 attendees get a free slice).
Teaching the Magna Carta
Educational opportunities abound, too.
- The American Bar Association, for instance, was a sponsor of a “Magna Carta Video Competition” that challenged students to create a video answering the question “Magna Carta: What’s So Great About the ‘Great Charter?’” You can view the winning team’s video on the site.
If school is still in session where you live, or you just want to brush up on your history, here are some other good Magna Carta resources.
- The British Council/BBC, The Guardian and MagnaCarta800th.com list some lesson plans. They are geared more toward students in England, but most could be modified for American classrooms as well.
- The National Council for the Social Studies has loads of teacher resources accessible for paying members. Just type “Magna Carta” into the search box.
- The History Channel has free videos, articles, and Q&As about the Magna Carta. Just type the term into the search box.
- NPR posted a Q&A with Julian Harrison of the British Library in London that’s worth a read.
- The National Archives has tons of teacher resources related to historic documents, and helps teachers access primary sources.
- Want to see it in person? A 1297 copy is on display at the National Archives in Washington. If you live in the Northeast, particularly Vermont or upstate New York, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, in the Canadian province of Quebec, might be closer. (It’s a little more than three hours by car from Syracuse, N.Y.) The copy displayed there is from 1300.
More fast facts
- Around one-third of the provisions in the United States’ Bill of Rights draw from the Magna Carta, particularly from its 39th clause: “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised (today’s definition would be “deprived of land”), outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.” (History.com)
- The four remaining copies of the original Magna Carta are housed at Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral, and the British Museum, all in England. (History.com)
- The Magna Carta wasn’t the first attempt to limit monarchy. The Coronation Charter preceded it in 1100, but never really took hold. (Magnacarta800th.com)
- Part of the reason the Magna Carta was more successful than its predecessor (although it did have to be reinstated at one point) was because it was circulated quickly and widely. Up to 13 copies were quickly made, complete with spelling mistakes, according to MagnaCarta800th.com, and handed out throughout the kingdom. “Magna Carta had therefore gone viral,” according to the site. There were just too many witnesses for it to be denied or forgotten.
- And about that that Jay-Z album—MTV posted a piece about why he chose the title. (It’s all about rewriting the rules.) You can find more information about the album on the official web site. Tip: Be careful if you’re searching for song titles around students, you might come across some profanity.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.