An illustration of King John signing the Magna Carta.

An illustration of King John signing the Magna Carta.

Can an 800-year-old document still be relevant?

It was written to help end a dispute between a king and his rebellious barons.

As Magna Carta reaches its 800th anniversary, JAMES GRUBEL explores its significance and continued relevance.

It is one of Australia's great historical treasures. Encased in tinted glass and protected by argon gas, it sits on display in a first-floor exhibition space in Parliament House.

It is known simply as Magna Carta, Latin for Great Charter.

Australia's document dates to 1297.

The original Magna Carta, however, dates back 800 years to 1215, when King John issued the document to appease rebel barons who had taken control of London.

It was sealed on June 15 in a meadow known as Runnymede, near Windsor, on the River Thames.

It was drawn up as a peace treaty. But by agreeing to the document, King John and his barons laid down what many regard as the foundation stone of English democracy and individual human rights.

"You approach it with a degree of caution because of its iconic status, but it really is a very significant document," says Matthew Zagor, from the ANU College of Law.

"It is a significant moment in English constitutional history and, therefore, both Australian and American constitutional history."

Most of the original 63 clauses in Magna Carta dealt with specific issues of the time, when landholders were angry with a tyrannical king who was waging war and doing everything he could to control land - the crucial base of power and rank in thirteenth century England.

Dr Tania Colwell, Visiting School Fellow at the ANU School of History, agrees Magna Carta is significant but more for its broad impact on the relationship between the King and his subjects, rather than any specific rights.

"At the time it was probably given a difference significance than we give it now," she says.

"So the 1215 document is interesting for what it says about the issues of the time. It gave the landed some rights, and put limits on their obligations to the sovereign."