What is the Magna Carta?
The Magna Carta lies at the heart of Australian parliamentary democracy. Parliament House has a 1297
edition of the Magna Carta—one of only four in existence, and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Magna Carta (Latin for the ‘Great Charter’) is famous around the world as the foundation stone of constitutional and parliamentary government.
It confirmed the rule of law—the principle that nobody, not even the monarch, is above the law—and, among other freedoms, laid the basis for establishing trial by jury, outlawing arbitrary detention, and ensuring that there should be no taxation without representation.
Over the centuries, its principles have been incorporated into the common law of many nations, and embodied in such momentous documents as the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, of course, Australia’s own Constitution.
Created for a peace that was doomed to fail
The Magna Carta was originally drafted in 1215, as a peace treaty between King John and a group of barons who had rebelled against his feudal and cruel system of demanding excessive taxes and military support.
Following his defeat against the French in 1214, King John was in a weakened position and was forced to come to terms with the barons. Their demands were incorporated into the first Magna Carta.
This first Magna Carta was a failure, though. King John broke his promises after just six weeks.
An idea that wouldn’t die
King John died in October 1216, but the Magna Carta did not die with him. Just one month later, the first revision was issued. Two more revisions, in 1217 and 1225, ensued under the reign of Henry III, King John’s son.
Henry’s successor, Edward I, confirmed the 1225 version and in 1297 issued the Inspeximus Magna Carta (‘Inspeximus’ is Latin for ‘we have inspected’—an inspeximus issue of a charter is one that inspects and confirms a charter made by a former king).
It is this edition of the Magna Carta that was officially placed on the English statutes. One of only four surviving copies of the original manuscript is held at Parliament House.
The Magna Carta is currently undergoing important conservation work
The Australian Parliament’s 1297 Inspeximus issue of Magna Carta was taken off display on 2 December 2016 to undergo an extensive conservation and testing program for the first time in fifty years.
The conservation work will be completed by the University of Melbourne’s Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation. During this time, you can see a replica in the Magna Carta display, which is located on the first floor Senate side, adjacent to the Making Laws exhibition.
This extensive conservation and rehousing program will ensure that the Parliament’s 1297 Magna Carta—the only one in the Southern Hemisphere and one of only four copies worldwide—will continue to be preserved for future generations.
Magna Carta conservation updates