The most notable document you will find in Parliament House is from a time when Australia was unknown to the rest of the world. It is one of four surviving originals of the 1297 Inspeximus issue of Magna Carta. The other surviving originals can be found in the National Archives, London, in the Guild Hall of the City of London and in the National Archives in Washington DC.
The original Magna Carta or Great Charter of 1215/16 was a message (albeit not entirely optional or of his own volition) from King John affirming that no one in society is above the law: not the King nor his subjects, not the government nor the governed.
Via the Magna Carta King John accepted that authority was subject to law derived from the community and as such the Magna Carta became a foundation stone of constitutional and parliamentary government.
John, as a feudal British king, held absolute power and occupiers of his vast estates, being tenants, held their land and this position in return for allegiance to the crown which, in turn, required them to provide military support, taxes, etc at the behest of the king.
King John, who for much of his reign was at war with France, abused and exploited his position with increasing demands for money and soldiers from his subjects. The barons started rebelling and by 1215 rebel barons outnumbered loyalists. The rebellious barons united, marched upon London, and captured the Tower of London on 17 May 1215.
In June 1215, the barons and the king met at Runnymede, near Windsor and just outside London, and agreed to terms which were recorded as a Charter of liberties, later (1216) known as Magna Carta. The barons pledged fealty to the king, and the king swore that he and his heirs would abide by the conditions of the Charter, ‘in all things and places forever’.
Within ten weeks John broke his promises given in the Magna Carta and civil war resumed. Three amended (though broadly similar) versions of the Magna Carta were issued by John’s successors (John died in Oct 1216) in the 20 years following Runnymede.
This copy of the Magna Carta here in Parliament House, issued by King Edward I in 1297, was sent to the Robert de Glamorgan, Sheriff of Surrey to be proclaimed in the country court. Edward also had it written into English law where to this day it remains, albeit in a much reduced form. John’s original Charter had not offered the protection of law to his subjects. Over time Magna Carta came to be seen as a law of laws, and a measure of the legality of all other laws.
So fundamental are some of the provisions of the Magna Carta (e.g. Chapter 29, 1297 version, relating to personal freedom) that echoes thereof can be seen in the United States Constitution and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At some point this copy of the Magna Carta came into the possession of King’s School in Bruton, Somerset from which the Australian Government purchased it for GBP 12,500 in 1952, from which date it has remained the property of the Australian Parliament.
For those interested in such things this copy of the Magna Carta was valued at A$15 million in 2006 – a A$25 million write-down on Sotheby’s 2002 valuation of $A40 million. Bargain it may be, but I understand it is not for sale.
On 12 October 1997 – the 700th anniversary of the sealing by King Edward I of the 1297 issue of Magna Carta the Magna Carta Monument was opened, adjacent to Old Parliament House, “as a commemoration of Freedom under the Law”. This monument is worth a visit – see my separate review – Magna Carta Place and Monument– which also provides additional detail on the Magna Carta and its place in law.
Apologies for the quality of the image of the Magna Carta attached – subdued lighting and the protective display cabinet do not make for easy or quality photography. The second image attached is of the Magna Carta Monument.
For details on entry to, opening hours etc of Parliament House see my separate review – Parliament House.
Address: Capital Hill
Phone: 02 6277 5399