IT LAID the foundations of the modern democracy so easily taken for granted in Britain today and was an inspiration to forward-thinking countries the world over, from Nelson Mandela’s South Africa to Gandhi’s India, and tomorrow marks its 800th anniversary.
The Magna Carta is the cornerstone from which Western democracy was built and the medieval document only came to subject the Crown to the rule of law after the determined rebellion of 25 land barons, including aristocratic Yorkshire landowners, who were incensed by the tax regime run to raise funds for wars overseas at the hands of King John.
Having pressured the King into accepting the 63-clause set of ideals, written down on sheepskin, the document was quoted internationally as nations challenged ancient orders in pursuit of fairer societies.
Eight centuries on and the feats of the 25 barons - who acted as ‘sureties’ or guarantors of the document - are not forgotten.
High-profile celebrations to mark the landmark anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in Surrey on 15 June 1215 began in earnest this weekend and continue tomorrow.
The document’s links to Yorkshire are the ‘Magna Carta towns’ of Helmsley, Topcliffe, Thirsk and Skipton in North Yorkshire, and Pontefract in West Yorkshire, which are so known for being the homes of some of the 25 barons.
Today, the streets of Helmsley have been a throwback to medieval times. The market town is the former home of one of the 25, Robert de Ros, baron of Helmsley and to mark the 800th anniversary, a ‘Living History’ path saw visitors follow a walkway from the town up to the original steps of Helmsley Castle amid a wandering cast of storytellers, jugglers, magicians and morris dancers.
Businesses decorated their windows and shopkeepers donned period attire.
The day’s events were organised by the Helmsley in Business group, while the Town Council and English Heritage are this evening holding a picnic at the castle.
Em Whitfield Brooks, of Helmsley in Business, said: “It’s often said that the Magna Carta was Great Britain’s most valuable export, ever, to the rest of the world. It is of huge historical importance, and the fact that Helmsley played such a vital role in it deserves to be honoured.”
Events held in other Magna Carta towns this weekend included a street procession in Skipton and medieval re-enactments at Topcliffe and at Thirk racecourse.
A four-metre high bronze statue of the Queen in full garter robes - inspired by portraits taken of her in 1954 and 1969, and created by James Butler - was unveiled in Runnymede, Surrey today.
Speaking at the unveiling, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the Queen was the “ultimate refinement” of constitutional monarchy.
Hundreds gathered at the statue near the River Thames to wait for the arrival of a pageant of 200 boats led by the Royal Barge Gloriana, and which carried a replica of the Magna Carta.
Tomorrow at Runnymede, the Queen, as patron of the Magna Carta Trust, will lead further celebrations, during which Prime Minister David Cameron will deliver a speech.
World changing legacy
As many as 13 copies of the Magna Carta were sent out across England to cement its authority in the 13th century, but the King John got the Pope to rule Magna Carta invalid soon afterwards and the barons rebelled again.
John died in October 1216 and the version that made it into law was issued by his son Henry III in 1225. Just four original copies remain, two at the British Library and one each at Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals.
Only three of the clauses in Magna Carta are still valid today. Perhaps the most famous of the three is: no free man should be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or outlawed or exiled except by the judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.