"The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history.... It was written in Magna Carta." — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1941, inaugural address.
This year, 2015, you may hear a lot about Magna Carta, one of the most important documents in the history of democracy.
Eight-hundred years ago, in the meadow at Runnymede, England, on the 15th of June 1215, King John of England was compelled by a group of 40 rebellious barons and their supporters, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, to accept as binding a document limiting his powers and ensuring certain rights for freemen and barons of England. The barons had become infuriated by John's military incompetence against France and his heavy-handed taxation policies.
Magna Carta forms a historical foundation for numerous legal customs taken for granted in many nations, especially in the West, including habeas corpus, the right to a trial, as mentioned in one of the most famous passages of Magna Carta, one also containing the enduring phrase "the Law of the Land":
No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.
Twenty-five of the barons, who came to be known as the Magna Carta Sureities, witnessed in the king's presence at Runnymede the affixing of the Great Seal of England onto the document.
The charter was meant to forestall civil war. It didn't work. Neither the king nor the barons honored the document's commitments. This led to the First Barons' War.
The charter evolved over time, not being referred to as Magna Carta until 1217, the year in which the First Barons' War ended, and not formally becoming statutory law until 1297 under Edward I.
King John was the youngest son of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Today, he's perhaps most famous as a villainous character in various tales about Robin Hood. (In the film The Lion In Winter, he's portrayed as a petulant semi-dolt.)
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, is credited with the first draft of the charter. He was a formidable figure, managing to feud with both King John and then Pope Innocent III. Langton is also thought to have divided the Bible into the standard arrangement of chapters still adhered to today.
Photo: Salisbury Cathedral's copy of Magna Carta, one of only four surviving 1215 exemplifications. (Getty Images)