On the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, John Allemang reviews its key passages, highlighting the historical significance of this remarkably novel document, and its relevance to some of our current, treasured, democratic rights and freedoms. In a companion article entitled “The Magna Carta: A powerful symbol of justice triumphing over tyranny” the same author traces the events leading up to the creation of this document and its later effects.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, history, current events

Key Question(s) to Explore:

  • Why should Canadians celebrate the anniversary of the Magna Carta?

New Terminology:

Magna Carta, arbitrary, claimant, flux, statute

Materials Needed:

Globe articles, Internet

Time required:

  • One half to three-quarters of a period plus a homework assignment
Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, which represents the historic first attempt in the English-speaking world to limit the powers of the throne and to grant inalienable rights to citizens. The “Great Charter” is credited as the model for other human rights documents, including the United Nations’ Declaration of Universal Human Rights, ratified in 1948. Canadians figured largely in the framing of the latter (Canadian, John Peters Humphrey, was its principal drafter).

The Magna Carta is particularly relevant to Canadian Social Studies today, as parliament engages in a debate about limiting personal freedoms in the interest of greater overall security. (See February Classroom Edition for a lesson on the proposed new federal anti-terrorism bill.)

Students will engage in a brief discussion about some specific rights and their links to the Magna Carta before viewing an eight minute video clip related to the recent movie version of Robin Hood (starring Russell Crowe).  They will then read the second article, above, with further discussion. For homework they will review the first article as well as the full text of the original Magna Carta (translated from Latin) and write a short report in which they, a) Relate the key aspects of the Magna Carta to rights Canadians enjoy today; and, b) Choose two or three of the original passages from the document that they found the most interesting or strange (there are many).

Action (lesson plan and task):

Start with a discussion about the Magna Carta. These prompts could help:

  • Do you think that rulers should be above the law, to do as they choose, when they choose?
  • Do you think police or the government should be able to arrest you without charging you or presenting any evidence that you have done anything wrong?
  • As a woman, if your husband died, do you think it would be right for the government to take all your husbands’ wealth and property and to force you to remarry whomever it chose for you?
  • At what point in history, do you think, were these rights were first set down in writing? (Answer, 800 years ago, in 1215)
  • What was the name of that document?
  • How many of you have seen the movie, Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe? (Announce that you are now going to show a video based on that movie)

Next, play this video:  (Note: if the links refuses to load, just copy the link directly into the URL in your browser or do a search: “Vimeo Robin Hood Russell Crowe Magna Carta,” or similar)

Engage students in a brief discussion after the video before asking for volunteers to read the second article aloud: The Magna Carta: A powerful symbol of justice triumphing over tyranny. Ensure that students understand the terms being used and answer any questions they might have to the extent that you have time.

Assign the following:

For homework, read the article, “Magna Carta provides a historical anchor for our rights,” and write a short piece in which you address the following questions:

  • What do you think is the most significant and important part of the Magna Carta? Provide reasons for your answer.
  • Do you think  movies like Robin Hood can be useful in educating people about the Charter? Why or why not?
  • Do you think the rights—such as Habeas Corpus—could ever disappear in our society or are they so embedded in our citizenship that we would never allow that to happen? Give reasons.
  • Next, read as much as you can of the whole Magna Carta at this link:
  • Select a few passages that you find funny, outrageous, or just plain interesting and describe them in the last part of your report.
  • Finally, do you think we ought to have a national Canadian celebration of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta? Defend your answer with reasons.

When students have handed in their assignments, find out if the majority felt we should be celebrating the anniversary of the Magna Carta. If so, encourage them to write a class letter to their Member of Parliament, to encourage the government to publicly recognize the importance of this anniversary.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Constructive discussion and contribution by students.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Successful completion of the writing assignment.

Confirming Activity:

  • Discussion of the writing assignments in a subsequent class and possibly sending a letter to their MP.