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Laying Down the Law

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Eight hundred years ago- on June 15,1215-King John of England placed his seal upon a peace treaty at Runnymede, a meadow near the Thames River. He didn't do it willingly; he had been forced to agree to it by "rebel barons" who challenged his numerous abuses. The king almost immediately disavowed the treaty, saying he had adopted it under duress; predictably, civil war broke out.

John died only a year later, still at war, but Magna Carta (Great Charter), as that treaty came to be known, took on a life of its own.

Although it would be extensively revised by successive kings and was completely ignored for long periods of time, it represented the first baby steps toward the rule of law, advancing the notion that no one, not even a king, is above the law. Eventually, Magna Carta not only became the cornerstone of British parliamentary democracy but its influences are also clearly seen in the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written after the end of World War II as the first world-wide expression of the inherent rights possessed by all human beings.

War Il as the first world-wide expression of the inherent rights possessed by all human beings.

In honor of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, David Oscarson releases a collection of limited edition writing instruments named for the ground-breaking charter. Oscarson sees the collection as a natural follow-up to his Alexander Fleming limited edition, released earlier this year, which was an homage to the medical and research communities. Magna Carta celebrates the rule of law and the profession that upholds it. Says Oscarson: "I wanted to do a tribute to our friends in the legal field--the people who stand beside us at some of the most difficult times in our lives." The new collection, David Oscarson's 24th limited edition, is composed of sterling silver with guilloché engraving and multiple layers of hard enamel, characteristics of the brand's entire oeuvre. The most prominent design feature is the British flag -the Union Jack-wrap-ping around the cap in translucent hard enamel so that the guilloché engraving underneath can be seen. On the barrel is the United States flag in opaque hard enamel. And there is another U.S.-British connection: Oscarson is based in the United States, but his workshop is located in England, thus, a British hallmark appears on each piece to certify the country of their manufacture.

Opposite the American flag, on the other side of the barrel, appears the most famous section of Magna Carta, article 39, in Latin: Nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonetur, aut disseisiatur, aut utlagetur, aut exuletur, aut aliquo modo destruatur; nec super eum ibimus, nec super eum mittemus, nisi per legale judicium parium suorum vel per legem terre.

Or, in English: "No free man shall be seized, or imprisoned, or disseized of land, or outlawed, or in any way destroyed; nor will we condemn him, nor will we commit him to prison, excepting by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the laws of the land." There you have it-an expression of the right to due process and the seedling concept of a jury system, eight centuries ago.

As a sidenote, Britain's Royal Mint issued a £2 commemorative coin that depicts King John holding a quill in his right hand, ostensibly to sign the charter, and a scroll in the other. While the document itself was written with a quill, kings used seals, not signatures, to signify their acceptance of treaties. The depiction of a quill on the coin was criticized as a "schoolboy error" by Dr. Marc Morris, a medieval historian and author of King John: Treachery, Tyranny, and the Road to Magna Carta, but the Mint has defended its representation as symbolic rather than literal. Those familiar with David Oscarson's work know that he tries to achieve as much accuracy as possible given the medium in which he works, and that is why you'll see, at the top of the cap of his Magna Carta, a depiction of King John's primary seal--the one he would have used to ratify Magna Carta in 1215-with the king's secondary seal at the end of the barrel.

Appropriately, England planned quite a celebration during the 800th anniversary with hundreds of special events for all age and interest groups. Highlights included an appearance of Queen Elizabeth II in June at festivities in Runnymede, where the original charter was sealed, and the display of all four surviving copies of the 1215 charter at the British Library in February. A website specifically for the 800th anniversary activities,, billed the celebration as "the global event to which the whole world is invited."

There has also been a heightened interest in research into the unanswered questions about Magna Carta, and how it was disseminated. There was never one "original" document of Magna Carta-rather, copies were made and sent throughout the land. Who made them and who preserved them so carefully that any still survive-the four from 1215 plus 13 others from later versions? Research is ongoing, and answers are being found.

But probably the most important question is one that can easily be answered today, and which the David Oscarson Magna Carta so beautifully addresses. "How does Magna Carta affect me?"

Only three of the original 63 clauses in the 1215 Magna Carta remained in the document as it evolved-many articles had no relevance outside the immediate time and place of the charter's origin. But article 39, inscribed on the barrel of the pen, did live on because of its obvious relevance and application to all people. Magna Carta was well known to American colonists, who incorporated its principles into their founding documents. The fifth amendment of our Constitution guarantees that

"no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," a principle that comes directly from article 39. It set the stage for the rule of law.

The great irony of Magna Carta is that that King John -he of Robin Hood fame, viewed by many historians as the most cruel and most inept in English history -ever agreed to it. Of course he never intended to enforce it, but by placing his seal upon it, he unwittingly gave life to new ideas that were very much at odds with his own.

So from an inept king came one of the most important documents in human history, one that today is cause for international celebration. No wonder it has been called "Britain's best export to the rest of the world." See Magna Carte in the United States

The National Archives houses a copy of Magna Carta from 1297, the year it entered the statute books. It prompted the first visit to the Archives by Charles, Prince of Wales, in March.

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