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A facsimilie copy of the 1215 Magna Carta (Pic: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A facsimilie copy of the 1215 Charter of Runnymede (Pic: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A facsimilie copy of the 1215 Charter of Runnymede (Pic: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Today marks 800 years since the English King John, surrounded by angry barons, was forced to put his seal to a document called “the Charter of Runnymede,” named after the place it was signed, near Windsor. It was a treaty that was drafted by the Archibishop of Canterbury, making peace between the King and the noblemen who had rebelled against his feudal rule and invaded London. Among the items agreed was an upper limit on the taxes the King had levied in order to continue unpopular wars against France, protection for the barons against being illegally imprisoned, and easy access to justice if required.

After significant revisions and reissues, clauses from the document that became known as “Magna Carta” found their way into English statute law and became not only a primary step in what would become parliamentary democracy, but also a direct inspiration for the writers of the American Constitution. It has continued to be an inspirational ideal for human societies ever since.

Although that is nothing compared to the inspiration it has had on the writers of TV dramas, movies, and hip hop, as we shall see. Here are five examples of Magna Carta’s influence over popular culture:

Doctor Who

In “The King’s Demons,” the Master brings a robot called Kamelion to England in 1215. The robot can change its appearance into any form, and the Master intends to depose the real King John, provoke a rebellion that then becomes a revolution, ending the reign of the king and preventing the emergence of Magna Carta. And why? Because he’s the Master. What other excuse does he need?

Hancock’s Half Hour

For one of the most fondly remembered episodes of his series Hancock’s Half Hour, the great British comedian Tony Hancock appeared in a spoof of the movie 12 Angry Men in which his pompous, moany everyman namesake has to take part in jury service. He’s elected the foreman of the jury and proceeds to waste a good deal of the court’s time interrupting proceedings and getting valuable evidence—a diamond ring—stuck on his finger. But it’s during the deliberations that this particularly glorious one-liner sneaks in. Seeking to convince the jury to acquit the accused, who they all believe is guilty, he starts an impassioned speech that reveals more about his own ignorance than it does about the law.

The cover of Magna Carta... Holy Grail by Jay ZJay Z

Given that Jay Z’s real name is Shawn Carter and he’s great, it was only a matter of time before he made a Magna Carta pun and used it to name part of his business empire, whether for a record label, a clothing line, or the title of an album. Although, having picked the latter option, he clearly didn’t consider the pun strong enough for an entire title, as his 2013 release was called Magna Carta… Holy Grail in a kind of gratuitous folding together of the legends of both Robin Hood and King Arthur.

Horrible Histories

Earlier this year, the BBC children’s show Horrible Histories told the story of Magna Carta using a spoof version of the Proclaimers song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” and getting Ben Miller in to play King John. There’s a neatness to this, as Ben also played the Sheriff of Nottingham—Robin Hood’s other sworn enemy—in Doctor Who‘s “Robot of Sherwood.”

Speaking of whom…

Robin Hood

I know the stories of Robin Hood are an essential part of the mythology of England, and that they are capable of being warped and altered in order to suit the stories we wish to tell, but there are limits. The 2010 movie Robin Hood changes the character’s motivation from the the classic robbing-the-rich-to-feed-the-poor to a struggle to impliment a “Charter” that would guarantee the rights of all Englishmen against oppression. The 1215 version of Magna Carta did no such thing, although it did start a chain of legal events that sort of ended up with a system that offered something of that kind in America.

So even by Robin Hood’s made-up standards it’s important to say that none of this happened. Not a word of it. And certainly not in whatever that accent is, Russell Crowe.

See more:
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By Fraser McAlpine