Britain celebrates 800th anniversary of Magna Carta

Queen attends ceremony to mark agreement that became symbol of human rights

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, talk as they attend a service to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta at Runnymede near Windsor, west of London. Photograph: Steve Parsons/AFP/Getty Images

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, talk as they attend a service to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta at Runnymede near Windsor, west of London. Photograph: Steve Parsons/AFP/Getty Images

 

The Magna Carta’s symbolic role as the touchstone for human rights and modern democracy was celebrated by one of Britain’s leading judges as the country marked the 800th anniversary of the accord.

Lord Dyson, master of the rolls and chairman of the Magna Carta Trust, spoke on the site at Runnymede where, eight centuries to the day, King John accepted the feudal barons’ document that limited the power of the crown.

Joined by Queen Elizabeth, prime minister David Cameron, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, senior royals and an audience of thousands – including senior American lawyers – Lord Dyson described the ground-breaking accord as “a symbol of democracy, justice, human rights and perhaps above all the rule of law for the whole world”.

Lord Dyson, the second most senior judge in England and Wales, after the lord chief justice, spoke ahead of Mr Cameron, who said fundamental reforms to UK human rights laws were required to “safeguard the legacy” of Magna Carta.

The prime minister said its principle was “as relevant today as it was then” and remains “sewn into the fabric of our nation, so deep we barely even question it” but complained that the notion of human rights in Britain eight centuries on had been “distorted and devalued”.

Lord Dyson said about King John and the barons: “They would surely have been astonished to learn that over time Magna Carta came to be regarded as one of the most important constitutional documents in our history and that it continues to be so regarded 800 years after it was sealed on this very spot.

“They would not have believed that the barons’ list of demands would become a symbol of democracy, justice, human rights and perhaps above all the rule of law for the whole world. But that is exactly what has happened.”

Although the Magna Carta remained binding on King John for only a number of weeks, it set a precedent, and its influence spread not just domestically but also abroad, having an impact on the US constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the post-second World War UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.