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Magna Carta Today


803 years ago today, on the banks of the River Thames, about fifteen miles from our house, the despot King John was finally ‘persuaded’ to put his seal to one of the greatest documents in British history, the Magna Carta – the great charter. Magna Carta was an attempt by the barons, the most powerful landed gentry in England, to rein in the ruthless monarch. It enshrined in law many significant values of equality and justice. One is vital to any democracy: equality before the law, the basis of all human rights legislation. No-one, not even the King, was to be above the law.

Tomorrow, on the meadows of Runnymede, a new monument to Magna Carta, will be opened to the public. It’s a monument that has particular significance for our family. It has been created in a collaboration between the Turner prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger and Studio Octopi, the architectural company of our son-in-law, James Lowe, with his partner, Chris Romer-Lee.

The title for the commemorative building is ‘Writ in Water’ and the pictures of it here describe what it is far better than we can. At the heart of it is a pool reflecting some of the words of the Magna Carta engraved round its rim.

‘No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [property taken] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimized, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.’

Reporting on it this morning, the BBC journalist suggested that the atmosphere inside the building is cathedral-like. People have described it as an ‘awesome’ place – not awesome meaning ‘impressive’ in the shallow colloquial way but awesome in the original sense of the word – inspiring serious thought. The Guardian newspaper today called it ‘a sanctuary of human rights’.

In a world where human rights are very much under threat, we need a space to think about what makes us human - a place of secular pilgrimage. It’s a place to reflect on the fragility of human values like equality, justice and mercy. It is more than just a cultural marker. It’s an important reminder of our deepest human ideals – a ‘sacred space’.

The twentieth-century French writer, Antoine Saint-Exupery said: ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye’. 'Writ in Water' reminds us to keep sight of this in a world dominated by the values of the market and the hand of the tyrant.


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