The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, announced in March 2014 that ‘an online Magna Carta is needed to protect and enshrine the independence’ of the Internet. He was not the fi rst or the last to cite this medieval English document in calling for a written constitution or ‘a bill of rights’. 1

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as the fi rst leg of an international bill of rights, 2 Eleanor Roosevelt, the mover and shaker who drove the entire project, expressed her hope that it would become ‘the international Magna Carta’ for all human kind. 3 Yet, when it was sealed in 1215 the Magna Carta was largely seen as a failure. It was initially legally valid for no more than three months and was never properly implemented. The so-called Great Charter was originally called ‘great’ because of its large size, not because of its lofty intention. Historians have noted that immediate contemporaries made no great claims for it at all. 4

The Charter, like many historic documents down the centuries, was the product of a political crisis. It was the result of a sustained and bitter confl ict between a medieval King of England and his barons. Contemporary accounts tell us that King John of England was a fearsome monarch. ‘All men bore witness that never since the time of Arthur was there a King who was so greatly feared in England, in Wales, in Scotland and in Ireland.’ 5 He tried to throw off the restraints of those who wielded power in the court of his predecessor, his elder brother Richard I, and rule in his own way. Discontent about taxes for foreign adventures now focussed on the monarch himself. William Sharp McKechnie, an early twentieth-century authority on the Magna Carta, described how ‘the whole administration of justice, along with the entire feudal system of land tenure’ were ‘degraded into instruments of extortion.’ 6

On 15 June 1215 a fi ve day summit between King John and his barons began in a fi eld known as Runnymede, located between Staines and Windsor. The King acceded to most of the barons’ long list of grievances; the armed forces they had mustered no doubt concentrating his mind. His main purpose was to avert insurrection, and on the day the Charter was sealed the barons reaffi rmed their oaths of allegiance to the King. 7 But this outbreak of peace did not last long, and soon both sides were preparing for war.