800 years old: Magna Carta, Symbol of Freedom Under Law, still influential

Madison, Wisconsin - June 15, 2015

Magna Carta
“The Signing of the Magna Carta,” mural by Albert Herter, 1915. Photo by James T. Potter, AIA.

Shaky cell phone video of King John of England (1166-1216) affixing his seal to Magna Carta has not yet surfaced on YouTube. So, you’ll have to rely on a visit to the Wisconsin Supreme Court Hearing Room to get a feel for what the scene may have been like 800 years ago in a meadow along the banks of the Thames River outside London.

The hearing room, located on the second floor East Wing of the state Capitol, is home to Albert Herter’s massive (nine-feet high by 18 feet, six-inches wide) mural, “The Signing of the Magna Carta.” 

The painting, one of four of Herter murals in the hearing room, depicts a tense showdown between King John and his barons at Runnymede, England on June 15, 1215. The barons were fed up with the king’s behavior, and they demanded better treatment, or else…

The King was blamed at times for plundering the barons’ property and arresting them without cause or trial. Magna Carta, also known as the charter of liberties or great charter,” was intended to put an end to it.

Pressured by the barons, the king agreed to the document’s 63 clauses, covering a wide range of grievances. Although the agreement applied only to the barons at the time, it is now widely recognized to have establish the rule of law, or the idea that everyone (including the king), is accountable to the law. 

Several rights initially established for the barons in Magna Carta are now embodied for all people under provisions of the U.S. and state constitutions, including Wisconsin’s.

The American Bar Association (ABA) chose to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta for its 2015 Law Day theme: Magna Carta: Symbol of Freedom Under Law.

The ABA  notes that the influence of Magna Carta is still unfolding as the story of modern constitutional government and its associated rule-of-law values, including due process, speedy trials, the right to travel, and trial by jury.

Chapter 39 states: “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

The concept of due process can be traced from early English law to the Northwest Ordinance governing territorial Wisconsin, and to the Declaration of Rights in the Wisconsin Constitution.

The late Supreme Court Chief Justice Roland B. Day (1919-2008) explained the significance of Magna Carta in a brief history of the murals in 1997:

“The barons and churchmen led by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, forced him to recognize principles that have developed into the liberties we enjoy today. King John, out of avarice, greed or revenge, had in the past seized the lands of noblemen, destroyed their castles and imprisoned them without legal cause. As a result, the noblemen united against the king.

Day wrote that most of the articles in Magna Charta dealt with feudal tenures, but many other rights were also included…

Article 40 promised: To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.

Out of these and other provisions came the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury. Freedom of the church was also guaranteed in the Charter. The barons and churchmen claimed that all of these were ancient rights expressed in earlier charters of Edward the Confessor (1004-1066) and Henry I (1100-1135). This mural commemorates our indebtedness to English common law, brought to these shores by the early British colonists.”

Magna Carta is celebrated in one other location at the Capitol – in stonework by Karl Bitter above the East Wing entrance, or pediment, at King Street.
The official state Capitol guide published by Christian A. Holst in 1919 explains the significance of the carvings, which unlike some of the Capitol’s other pediment carvings, were done in place.

“In the east wing is the supreme court room, where the final interpretation of the laws of the state is made. It is, therefore, appropriate that law should be made a leading consideration of the pediment over the entrance to this wing...,” Holst wrote.

“The grouping includes figures representing Liberty, Justice and Truth, as well as two figures “carrying and caring for the Magna Charta.”

In marking the 800th  anniversary of Magna Carta, the National Archives noted Magna Carta’s influence in establishing the rule of law:   

Magna Carta, first issued in 1215 by King John of England, established for the first time that the king was subject to the law, not above it, and set out a new political order. It is widely viewed as one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy.

During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution ("no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.") is a direct descendent of Magna Carta's guarantee of proceedings according to the "law of the land."

Additional resources:

Wisconsin Supreme Court website

Wisconsin State Law Library 

“800 Years of Magna Carta! Why Celebrate?”
Wisconsin Lawyer
By Atty. John S. Skilton, former president, State Bar of Wisconsin

American Bar Association (ABA)
Magna Carta: Symbol of Freedom Under Law as the theme of its 2015 Law Day celebration

British Library:
Celebrating 800 years of Magna Carta

“Two Minute Guide to Magna Carta and Runnymede”

The National Archives

Tom Sheehan
Court Information Officer
(608) 261-6640

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