We all have a good idea of the meaning of the rule of law, with reference to, amongst others, Masethla v President of the Republic of South Africa 2008 1BCLR1(CC), the so-called “covert surveillance and phone tapping” case. But do we know the history and did we celebrate its 800 years of existence in 2015?

I had the privilege to visit Lincoln Castle in the UK, where one of the four original Magna Cartas is kept under strict protection and preservation. The other three extant documents are kept in the Cathedral of Salisbury (1) and in the British Library in London (2).

The Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) is a document guaranteeing English political liberties that was drafted at Runnymede, a meadow by the River Thames, and signed by King John on 15 June 1215, under pressure from his rebellious barons. His subjects suffered under his violation of a number of ancient laws and customs of England. However, when the powerful land barons and merchants could no longer tolerate the high taxes the king imposed on them to finance his expensive and unsuccessful wars, King John was forced into signing the Magna Carta. By declaring the sovereign to be subject to the rule of law and documenting the liberties held by “free men” it provided the foundation for individual rights in Anglo-American jurisprudence and is today viewed as the foundation for human rights.

It may come as a surprise that the documents were not written in English, but in Latin, the language of the Church and the law, and translated into French, the everyday language of King John and the barons. The scribes used iron gall ink made from growths on oak trees caused by parasitic wasps. The scribes also used bird feathers as pens.

The word “Great” was added to the document in 1217 when a second but smaller charter was concluded, the Charter of the Forest (currently also displayed at Lincoln Castle). The Magna Carta is on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, which recognises important documentary heritage worldwide. The Magna Carta is regarded as an international icon of liberty and freedom. It has a special link to the USA as Runnymede, an acre of Crown land, was given in May 1965 to the American people in perpetuity under the control and management of the Kennedy Memorial Trust.

Sources: Visit to Lincoln Castle Nov.2023; Encyclopaedia

Britannica, lincolncastle.com

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