It's 800 years since Magna Carta was signed reluctantly by a humbled King John at Runnymede. It is lauded as a definitive moment in British history as the germination of modern human rights in this country. The biggest of these seedlings is supposedly habeas corpus (no imprisonment without a fair trial), though there is some debate about the origins of this principle.
Magna Carta -- the Great Charter -- was a statement of economic rights more than anything else. It re-established legal limits on the monarch, which King John had breached to his own benefit. This included big taxes on the barons at a John's whim to help fund his wars. So the barons rose up and John capitulated to their demand that he adhere to the law -- a deal enshrined in Magna Carta. Soon enough it was scrapped by the pope, though it has popped up again many times in history.
As a concept, Magna Carta has loomed large over not just Britain but the world. It symbolises something greater than perhaps it actually was because it still upheld through its various clauses the existing feudal system. There is lots of talk of freemen, for example, but very few were free in Medieval England. So at the 800th anniversary of its signing, politicians are exploiting its mythology to their own ends.
"For centuries, Magna Carta has been quoted to help promote human rights and alleviate suffering all around the world," said the UK prime minister, David Cameron, in a speech at a ceremony in Runnymede -- the same man intending on scrapping the Human Rights Act.
But for all the fawning and mythologising about Magna Carta, few bother to read what it actually says. It was written in Latin, but using the British Library's translation, from the odd to the outrageous here are some of the clauses you are not likely to hear about during the pomp and pageantry...
Don't let your sons marry beneath them.
(6) Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to the heir's next-of-kin.
Don't worry about your debts to the Jews if you die.
(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.
(11) If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands. The debt is to be paid out of the residue, reserving the service due to his feudal lords. Debts owed to persons other than Jews are to be dealt with similarly.
An end to the tyranny of forced river bridge construction.
(23) No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.
Foreign merchants welcome. Unless we're at war with your country, in which case we might take all of your things and kill you if English merchants are treated badly.
(41) All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs. This, however, does not apply in time of war to merchants from a country that is at war with us. Any such merchants found in our country at the outbreak of war shall be detained without injury to their persons or property, until we or our chief justice have discovered how our own merchants are being treated in the country at war with us. If our own merchants are safe they shall be safe too.
Investigating evil forest customs.
(48) All evil customs relating to forests and warrens, foresters, warreners, sheriffs and their servants, or river-banks and their wardens, are at once to be investigated in every county by twelve sworn knights of the county, and within forty days of their enquiry the evil customs are to be abolished completely and irrevocably. But we, or our chief justice if we are not in England, are first to be informed.
Kick out the bloody French.
(50) We will remove completely from their offices the kinsmen of Gerard de Athée, and in future they shall hold no offices in England. The people in question are Engelard de Cigogné, Peter, Guy, and Andrew de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné, Geoffrey de Martigny and his brothers, Philip Marc and his brothers, with Geoffrey his nephew, and all their followers.
Unless her husband has been killed, a woman shouldn't bother reporting murders to the authorities because they are emotional, hysterical and can't be trusted.
(54) No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.
Give Wales its stuff back.
(56) If we have deprived or dispossessed any Welshmen of land, liberties, or anything else in England or in Wales, without the lawful judgment of their equals, these are at once to be returned to them. A dispute on this point shall be determined in the Marches by the judgment of equals. English law shall apply to holdings of land in England, Welsh law to those in Wales, and the law of the Marches to those in the Marches. The Welsh shall treat us and ours in the same way.
(58) We will at once return the son of Llywelyn, all Welsh hostages, and the charters delivered to us as security for the peace.
Don't forget about our mate Alexander (not Salmond), king of Scotland.
(59) With regard to the return of the sisters and hostages of Alexander, king of Scotland, his liberties and his rights, we will treat him in the same way as our other barons of England, unless it appears from the charters that we hold from his father William, formerly king of Scotland, that he should be treated otherwise. This matter shall be resolved by the judgment of his equals in our court.