Today is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Some say it is the cornerstone of civil liberties and human rights, others say it is “an irrelevant piece of guff,” a lot of tosh has been said about how important it is or was and that it wasn’t so important when it was issued – under duress – in 1215. David Starkey said that the high-sounding clauses, like clauses 39 and 40 (above), “have no purchase at law at all” (and indeed, no high-sounding tosh in other such documents really has legal purchase.) The British Library points out that there are now only 3 of 63 clauses (actually the original charter has not word separation, let alone any division into clauses) are still in law, and one of them, namely the first — “the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired,” — was violated by Henry VIII when he set up the Church of England and made the monarch the supreme head of the Church. Also, the clause about freemen at the time meant the nobles, churchmen and franklins, not everyone else, so it was very limited in 1215, and was ignored by King John (and annulled by Pope Innocent III, John’s liege lord, in August 1215).
Still, I personally think it was a meaningful document — maybe not so much the 1215, but subsequent ones issued by later kings — which showed that the king was under law and not above it and that people (perhaps not everyone at first) had rights and that they should be able to defend them in court, all of which positively affected English and later American legal culture.