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Magna Carta: From Medieval England to Canada Today

How an obscure thirteenth century charter became the foundation document in the history of democracy, law, and human rights.

Book Cover Magna Carta

Talking History focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, and it consists of articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts. Our contributors use the power of narrative to bring the past to life and to show how it is not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. "Talking History" is a series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Carolyn Harris is a historian and author of the new book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada


On June 15, 1215, King John of England reluctantly affixed the royal seal to Magna Carta, a Charter of limits on his power imposed by an influential group of rebel barons and churchmen. The Charter contained a wide range of provisions. There were clauses that reflected the promises previous monarchs had made on their coronation days including freedom for the Church to manage its own affairs, inheritance rights for the nobility and freedom from forced remarriage for noble widows. There were also provisions that reflected King John’s conflicts with his subjects and fellow British rulers including a list of corrupt officials to be removed from office and Welsh and Scottish hostages to be released. Among these distinctly thirteenth century conditions were ideals that transcended Magna Carta’s times including “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned…except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land” and “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Official versions of Magna Carta were laboriously copied by hand and transported on horseback and by river barge to castles, cathedrals and town halls throughout the kingdom. Despite the wide reach of Magna Carta and its lofty principles, neither King John nor his subjects thought the agreement would last. An English king had never before been bound to a charter of limitations on his power imposed by his subjects. Within weeks of reluctantly accepting Magna Carta, King John wanted to be released from his oath and the barons were looking for an alternate claimant to the throne. Magna Carta seemed destined to fade into obscurity.

Within weeks of reluctantly accepting Magna Carta, King John wanted to be released from his oath.

Magna Carta was saved by King John’s sudden death in 1216, reputedly from "a surfeit of peaches and cider." His eldest son, the new King Henry III was only nine years and his youth gave the barons time to develop and entrench the terms of the Great Charter. In 1217, the Charter of the Forest codified common stewardship of shared resources, declaring "Every free man may henceforth without being prosecuted make in his wood or in land he has in his forest, a mill, a preserve, a pond, a marl-pit or a ditch…in arable land, on condition that it does not harm any neighbour." The Charter of the Forest challenged centuries of arbitrary royal interference in community land development.

When Henry III came of age, he reissued both Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. His son, Edward I, affirmed his commitment to the Charters to receive the necessary financial support for his wars in Scotland. (A Magna Carta from Edward I’s reign will be touring Canada in 2015). By the end of the thirteenth century, the clauses unique to King John’s time had been dropped and provisions guaranteeing freedom from arbitrary rule and trial by peers assumed a more central place in the Charter. By the mid-fourteenth century, the scope of Magna Carta broadened from protections for the nobility and clergy to people of all social backgrounds and the legal rights guaranteed by Magna Carta became known as “due process”. King Edward III decreed in 1354, "No man of what Estate or Condition that he be, shall be put out of Land or Tenement, nor taken nor imprisoned, nor disinherited, nor put to Death, without being brought in Answer by due Process of the Law." Women explicitly received the legal protections in Magna Carta the following century.

In Tudor times, Magna Carta once again seemed destined to become an obscure legal document as a strong monarch able to rule with a free hand seemed necessary to protect English from external threats, such as the Spanish Armada. William Shakespeare’s play, The Life and Death of King John, covers the events of the notorious monarch’s life without once mentioning the Great Charter. 

Magna Carta returned to the popular consciousness with the writing of renowned jurist Sir Edward Coke, who argued that Magna Carta was the cornerstone of the English legal tradition, "such a fellow, that he will have no Sovereign." For Coke, freedom from arbitrary rule included freedom from arbitrary taxation and his interpretation of Magna Carta informed the English Civil Wars and the American Revolution. Magna Carta continues to have totemic status in the United States and a late thirteenth century version of the Charter is on permanent display at the National Archives.

For the Fathers of Confederation, the constitutional and legal traditions informed by Magna Carta were essential to the creation of the new Dominion of Canada. The limits imposed on King John’s rule were essential to the development of parliament in the mid-thirteenth century and then the constitutional monarchy enshrined by the English Bill of Rights in 1689, which became Canada’s system of government. The legal rights in Magna Carta informed the system of Common law in use throughout the English speaking world including Canada. When Canada repatriated its constitution in 1982, legal principles from Magna Carta were enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as fundamental justice.

"For the Fathers of Confederation, the constitutional and legal traditions informed by Magna Carta were essential to the creation of the new Dominion of Canada."

In 2010, a thirteenth century version of Magna Carta was displayed in Canada for the first time, the same year Queen Elizabeth II laid a stone from Runnymede Meadow as the cornerstone of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Magna Carta has evolved from a thirteenth century truce between an unpopular king and his discontented subjects to a foundation document in the history of democracy, law, and human rights. Over the past 800 years, Magna Carta has given its gifts to Canada and the world and will continue to do so for centuries to come.


Suggestions for further reading: 

Book Cover Magna Carta

The Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law and Human Rights, by Carolyn Harris

About the book: After centuries of obscurity, the Magna Carta was rediscovered in the seventeenth century, and has informed numerous documents upholding human rights, including the American Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For Canadians, it has informed key documents from the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that shaped the then-British Colonies and their relations with First Nations, to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This book complements the 2015 Magna Carta Canada exhibition of the Durham Cathedral Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest.

Book Cover Canada's Constitutional Monarchy

Canada's Constitutional Monarchy, by Nathan Tidridge 

About the book: Canadians enjoy one of the most stable forms of government on the planet, but there is a crisis in our understanding of the role the Crown plays in that government. Media often refer to the governor general as the Canadian head of state, and the queen is frequently misidentified in Canada as only the British monarch, yet she has been queen of Canada since 1952. Even government publications routinely cast the Crown as merely a symbolic institution with no impact on the daily lives of Canadians—this is simply not true. Errors such as these are echoed in school textbooks and curriculum outlines.

Canada’s Constitutional Monarchy has been written to counter the misinformation given to Canadians, reintroducing them to a rich institution integral to our ideals of democracy and parliamentary government. Nathan Tidridge presents the Canadian Crown as a colourful and unique institution at the very heart of our Confederation, exploring its history from its beginnings in  sixteenth century New France, as well as its modern relationships with First Nations, Honours, Heraldry, and the day-to-day life of the country.

Book Cover Canada and the Crown

Canada and the Crown: Essays in Constitutional Monarchy, by D. Michael Jackson and Philippe Lagassé

About the book: Stephen Harper's Conservative government has reversed the trend of its predecessors by giving the Crown a higher profile through royal tours, publications, and symbolic initiatives. Based on papers given at a Diamond Jubilee conference on the Crown held in Regina in 2012, Canada and the Crown assesses the historical and contemporary importance of constitutional monarchy in Canada. Established and emerging scholars consider the Canadian Crown from a variety of viewpoints, including the ways in which the monarch relates to Quebec, First Nations, the media, education, Parliament, the constitution, and the military. They also consider a republican option for Canada. Editors D. Michael Jackson and Philippe Lagassé provide context for the essays, summarize and expand on the issues discussed by the Contributors, and offer a perspective on further study of the Crown in Canada.


Dr. Carolyn Harris is the author of Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights. She teaches history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and received her PhD in European history from Queen's University in 2012. Her writing on history and the monarchy has appeared in numerous publications including the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, Smithsonian Magazine, and the BBC News Magazine, and she is a frequent guest on television and radio. She lives in Toronto.

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