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Magna Carta, 'This Awful Thing' That Shaped Legal Rights, Turns 800

The London copy of the 1215 Magna Carta, on display by the British Library. The document was sealed on June 15, 1215.

The Great Charter is now an octocentenarian. The document that laid a legal cornerstone for thousands of judicial systems was sealed on June 15, 1215. It was nullified within weeks — but the horse of due process was already out of the barn of royal privilege.

The landmark birthday prompted an animated Google Doodle on the search engine's British site, featuring King John with a group of barons. It also depicts a man wearing a ball and chain, a reference to the rights that eventually reached beyond the nobility.

In the lead-up to the occasion, the British Library has been displaying two original Magna Carta manuscripts. You can also see translations of the text online that are broken out by subjects such as justice, trade, religion and debt.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro has reported:

"In 1215, it was revolutionary for a king to say that not even he was above the law. Of course, King John did not actually want to issue this document. He was at war with English barons; they gave him no choice. Then the king went behind their backs and secretly wrote a letter to Pope Innocent III, saying, 'I have been forced to sign this awful thing!' "

The Magna Carta's legacy has endured — but it was initially valid only for about 10 weeks. As British Library curator Julian Harrison told NPR, that's because after receiving King John's letter, Pope Innocent issued a pronouncement: "I declare the charter to be null and void of all validity forever."

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