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Magna Carta at 800: London Diaries

Posted By Bob Weeks, SCCBA ABA Representative, Wednesday, August 12, 2015

In 1957, 9,000 American lawyers contributed to building a monument to Magna Carta at Runnymede, England, where Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215. The American Bar Association (ABA) has returned in 1971, 1985 and 2000 to rededicate and  "spiff up" this memorial.  This year, the ABA organized a group of 750 to participate  in London Sessions of CLE, join in the 800th-anniversary celebration of Magna Carta, and rededicate the ABA memorial.  My wife, Nancy, and I were happy to join in this celebration and to share some of our experiences in the form of a diary with some photos. What we now call Magna Carta began as the Articles of the Barons, a kind of peace treaty between King John of England and a group of disgruntled English barons in 1215.  The barons had taken the Tower of London and controlled the city of London.  King John was holed up at Windsor Castle. The two sides met at Runnymede, in mid-June 1215.  Magna Carta was written in Latin and most of it dealt with issues of the day.  However, it established the principle that no one is above the law, not even the king, and clauses 39 and 40 contained the seeds of due process of law.  "No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseized or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers and/or by the law of the land.  To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice."  Those concepts developed over the centuries and Magna Carta is now considered a bedrock symbol of the rule of law

Tuesday, June 9 - Arrive in London, Get to Hotel

We landed at Heathrow Airport in mid-afternoon and took the London Underground (the tube) to our hotel in the Bloomsbury area. Eschewing the posh (and pricey!) headquarters hotels on Park Lane, we stayed at The Harlingford, a contemporary, compact, family owned hotel on a Georgian crescent across the street from Cartwright Gardens and near the University of London.  The gardens were named for John Cartwright, an attorney and the first English writer to openly support American independence.  We ate at Moreish, a cafe down the block, where the owner enticed us by offering a ten percent "student discount"  which she interpreted broadly enough to include two American seventy-somethings.

Wednesday, June 10 - British Library Magna Carta Exhibit

After our "full English" breakfast, we walked a few blocks to the British Library to see their exhibit, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.  It was amazing.  They had historic documents pre-dating Magna Carta to give us a feeling for the world in 1215.  King John, "the greatest tyrant born of woman", had lost most of the lands in France acquired by his predecessors. Even worse, he taxed the barons and others unmercifully to finance wars to reclaim those lands.  Then, he lost those wars.  The barons were fed up and withdrew their allegiance from King John. Negotiations between the King and the barons came to a head in the meeting at Runnymede.  King John bought peace, for a while, by giving his seal to Magna Carta, which established the principle that no person is above the law, not even the king, and had the seeds of due process of law.


Bob Weeks outside British Library exhibit.

The exhibit followed all the ups and downs of Magna Carta over the centuries, including the papal bull issued by Pope Innocent III which annulled Mana Carta only ten weeks after the meeting at Runnymede.  Civil war resumed between the barons and the king until King John died in the fall of 1216.  His son, Henry III, was only nine years old but his Regent re-issued Magna Carta in a successful attempt to regain the support of the barons.  Magna Carta was re-issued a number of times, often as a means to obtain support for taxes, and was adopted as a statute in 1297.  The later writings of Sir Edward Coke and William Blackstone further supported Magna Carta and lawyers brought it with them when they came to the American Colonies.

Thomas Jefferson was inspired by Magna Carta and the exhibit had a draft of our Declaration of Independence in his own handwriting including some portions which were not adopted such as a clause outlawing slavery.  From there, Magna Carta spread around the world.  For example, the exhibit included:  the voice of Nelson Mandela invoking Magna Carta in his own defense at his trial in South Africa; film of Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 urging the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which she called "a Magna Carta for all mankind."; and color film of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sun Suu Kyi on the importance of holding governments accountable for their actions.
More at

After four hours at the Magna Carta exhibit, we got a quick bite at the library cafeteria before heading out to get souvenirs for our family and finally dinner at a fish restaurant near our hotel.

Thursday, June 11 - ABA Reg., Supreme Court of the U.K.; ABA Opening Session; Choral Evensong; Garden Reception
After breakfast, we went shopping for more souvenirs before checking in for the ABA London Sessions at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane.  We then headed to Parliament Square in Westminster to visit the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, a comparatively new legal institution.  We saw their three courtrooms and a display about the court's history before getting lunch in their cafe.  At the cafe, we bought three beautiful copies of Magna Carta in English; one for ourselves, one for our cousin who is a solicitor in London and one to bring home for the Santa Clara County Bar Association archives.
Bob Weeks in a  courtroom of the Supreme Court of the U. K.

The ABA Opening Session was held at Methodist Central Hall, an iconic structure near Parliament Square where the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly was held in 1946.  The session featured music from Legal Harmony, a choir of legal professionals, welcoming remarks from local bar leaders and an address by the Right Honorable Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.  Lord Neuberger compared the development of courts and democracy in the U.K. and
the U. S.

Legal Harmony sings during ABA Opening Session

We were then bused to the Temple Church, the "Mother Church of the Common Law", for Choral Evensong.  Temple Church has a long history and is noted as being one of the few remaining round churches.  Following that service we enjoyed a nice reception in the Gardens of Middle Temple. The program for the reception showed a plaque recognizing donations from the American Bar Association in rebuilding Middle Temple after WWII.   The back of the program had a copy of our Declaration of Independence noting five Middle Templars who had signed it. Beautiful weather and the ambiance of the heart of legal London made this a wonderful evening.

Choral Evensong at Temple Church.

Bob Weeks with ABA President Elect Paulette Brown at Middle Temple Gardens.

Friday, June 12 - CLE; Dinner at House of Lords
All of the CLE programs took place at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane. It took about half an hour, half on the tube and half walking up Park Lane, for me to get there each day.  There were four choices for each morning and afternoon for two days. 

I attended the program on The Magna Carta: "What If . . . " which began with a wonderful summary of the history of Magna Carta.  This was followed by questions about what the development of a particular area of law would have been if Magna Carta did not exist. The audience voted with clickers on the alternatives offered and then we had a discussion about it.  One example was what year did the U.S. Supreme Court first cite Magna Carta - 1794, 1814, 1819 or 1826?  (Bank of Columbia v. Oakley,1819)

Cherie Blair, Q.C. and wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, was the luncheon speaker and talked about the rule of law in the context of business and development.  While businesses enjoy the rule of law in enforcing contracts and providing certainty, their role in contributing to and promoting the rule of law is more recent and more controversial.  Ms. Blair is active in that arena in a variety of ways.  I asked her about how it was being a practicing lawyer when your spouse ran the government and was on the front page everyday.  Her reply: 1) Tony was Prime Minister - good; 2) had to give up representing the government; 3) good thing she was already a Queen's Counsel (a "silk") because it wouldn't have happened later - too political!; 4) she could sue the government (headed by her husband) and did so over parental leave rights when pregnant with her fourth child.  She recalled talking with Hillary Clinton about the issue and they concluded the it would be impossible in the U. S. political system to be a practicing lawyer while married to the President of the United States.

The afternoon CLE I chose was Where Would You Try a Case and compared the different approaches in the U. S. and the U. K. to trial skills and their application in civil, criminal and commercial cases.  The major emphasis was on the difference between presenting a case to a jury (U.S.) versus a judge (U.K.).

John McDonnell is the State Delegate for California in the ABA House of Delegates.   He arranged a dinner party though his friend, Baroness Eaton, DBE, DL.  We got a tour of the Palace of Westminster including both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  We also saw the lobby between the two chambers where members of the public and press can meet with the legislators.  This is the origin of the term "to lobby" meaning to influence or persuade. Following the tour, we had dinner in a room with a terrace overlooking the Thames River.  A truly memorable evening.  A few days later, the papers reported that Westminster Palace is in need of serous structural repairs!

Bob & Nancy Weeks at Westminster Palace (Big Ben in background)

Saturday, June 13 - CLE; Trooping the Colour; Royal Courts of Justice Reception
Beatrice Mtetwa of Zimbabwe was the speaker for our morning plenary session.  She is an award-winning advocate for human rights.  Her remarks were harrowing in describing what she has to deal with on a daily basis where rights supposedly guaranteed on paper, are routinely ignored, even (or especially) by those charged with their enforcement.  Their new constitution has good words but the process of aligning existing statutes to be in alignment with it has yet to begin.  Her office gets hacked, offices searched at night, gets arrested when protesting a search warrant, etc.  I asked her, "In view of all this, what moves you to do what you do? Where do you see hope?"  She said, "We have to do this.  It would be worse if I didn't do it.  I took an oath as a lawyer and I just want to practice my profession without harassment, just like teachers and doctors can practice theirs.  I just want to do what I took an oath to do.  If they want to arrest me for doing it, that is their problem, not mine."   She got a standing ovation!


Bob & Nancy Weeks with Beatrice Mtetwa at Royal Courts of Justice.

"The Magna Carta's Influence on Modern-Day Human Rights" was the afternoon CLE topic I chose.  After some introductory remarks, the program focused on a corporate supply chain involving manufacturing in Malaysia.  Starting with a labor shortage and permission to bring in foreign workers, we looked at each step all the way through to where the products end up.  A useful website is

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne was our luncheon speaker.  She is the Executive Director of AMAR International Charitable Foundation, a group that helps communities rebuild their lives when faced with conflict, civil disorder and disruption.  She said Magna Carta was the ˇirst to provide basic freedoms of equality and the rule of law.  She referred to two provisions relating to women: Clause 7 which entitled a widow to her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble when her husband died and Clause 8 which provided that no widow shall be compelled to marry if she wished to remain without a husband.  When crimes are committed, sometimes local justice is not strong enough to bring the perpetrators to justice.  So there is a need for something in between local justice and the International Criminal Court.  More information is at

Although the actual birthday of Her Majesty The Queen is on April 21, the formal celebration (Trooping the Colour)  is held later when the weather is better.  This year it was held on Saturday, June 12, and Nancy attended it while I went to the CLE programs described above.  This is a major display of British pomp.  There is a parade from Buckingham Palace to Horse Guards Parade where a ceremony takes place.  The Queen was in an open coach with her husband, Lord Philip while Prince Charles and Princess Anne were on horseback. 


Her Majesty The Queen and Lord Lord Philip in the Royal Coach.

After the ceremony,  the parade returns to the palace by the same route.  Finally, the Royal Family appears on the balcony and waves to the crowd.   Many bands and marching units participated including a band who played while on horseback.  The highlight of the day was when Prince George, who is almost two, appeared on the balcony with the family for his first public appearance.  The next day, every newspaper had a photo of "Gorgeous George" on the front page.


Prince Charles, Prince George with his parents and HM The Queen 
(Photo from the evening news on television)

That evening, the ABA reception was held at the Royal Courts of Justice.  There is a large central hall with courtrooms around the edge on the upper floors.  A special treat was a historical exhibit of the clothing worn by judges and barristers over the years.  Another item of interest was a  sculpture of a person made from wire coat hangers.

Sunday, June 14 - Magna Carta Panel; Garden Party at Winfield House; Fellows Gala at Lansdowne Club
The Future of Magna Carta was the topic for the panel at the closing plenary session.  I have never seen so much legal and judicial erudition at one table in my life.  The moderator was Dick Howard, Prof. of Law & Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.  The panelists were: Justice Richard Goldstone, former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa; Rt. Hon. Lord Igor Judge, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; Rt. Hon. Baroness Patricia Scotland of Asthal, the first black Queen's Counsel and the first woman Attorney General of the U. K.; Hon. Diane Wood, Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeal for the Seventh Circuit; and Sir Robert Worcester, Deputy Chairman and Trustee of the Magna Carta Trust and Chair of the Magna Carta 2015 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee.

The essence of what they said was that the principles of Magna Carta started in the U. K., spread to the United States and then around the world.  Magna Carta never had a future but has survived for 800 years because it has what people want for their children - justice, righteousness, law of the land, security, due process and habeas corpus. Not everyone has these things, but we should be humble because it took us a while to work it out.  Eternal vigilance is required for Magna Carta to have a future.  The future is brighter because there are over 1000 events in over 50 countries celebrating Magna Carta this year.

During the final lunch at Grosvenor House, ABA President William Hubbard presented Sir Robert Worcester with an ABA Presidential Citation for his assistance to the ABA in organizing the London Sessions and the rededication of the ABA Memorial at Runnymede.


Bob Weeks with Sir Robert Worcester at Winfield House.

Winfield House in Regent's Park, is the official residence of the U. S. Ambassador Matthew Barzun.  Ambassador Barzun hosted a Garden Party for some of the ABA members on June 14, Flag Day in the United States.  The estate covers over 12 acres and has the largest garden in London after Buckingham Palace.  The garden includes large open areas, trees, a greenhouse, a formal garden and tennis courts.  One of items served was a pulled pork slider with an American flag toothpick - perfect for Flag Day!


Bob & Nancy Weeks with U. S. Ambassador Matthew Barzun.

We attended the gala dinner of the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation at the Lansdowne Club.  Built in 1763, the Lansdowne House became a Social Club in 1935 and has always admitted men and women on an equal basis.  It has some interesting American connections.  In 1782, Benjamin Franklin and Lord Shelburne, the Prime Minister, hammered out the terms of the Treaty of Paris which conceded independence to the United States.  Negotiations took place in the elegant Round Room which has a copy of the signature page of the Treaty of Paris on the wall.  From 1921-29, the house was the home of American retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge who founded the large London department store which still bears his name.



Dining Room at the Lansdowne Club set for Fellow Gala.

Monday, June 15 - Magna Carta Celebration at Runnymede
Up at 4:00 a.m. for an early breakfast and then take the tube to Park Lane to get the bus to Runnymede.  We get to Runnymede a bit before 8:00 a.m., go through security and onto a large meadow near the River Thames with a carnival atmosphere.  There are booths selling refreshments and souvenirs; a large open stage where a group is performing excerpts from The Freedom Game; giant figures representing suffragette Emily Pankhurst and Edward Coke, architect of the Bill of Rights in the 17th century;  a large covered stage which will seat the royals, other dignitaries and the London Symphony Orchestra; and banks of very nice stainless steel  portable toilets.  To the right, slightly above the meadow, is the American Bar Association Memorial to Magna Carta, built by American lawyers in 1957.  The ABA delegation is seated on the side toward that ˇmemorial next to a metal roadway lined with a few flags.

The crowd grows larger and the London Philharmonic begins its program.  Then primary school children troop in and install flags they have made representing historic counties throughout the U. K.  Very beautiful and inspiring, but they often block our view of the main stage.  Fortunately for us, there are large monitors on each side of the stage.

Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, arrives and dedicates The Jurors, a new monument, which consists of 12 bronze chairs decorated with images of struggles for freedom, rule and law and equality.  Among those are The Golden Rule, the Exxon Valdez tanker,  Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Harvey Milk, and  Aung San Suu Kyi.  Prince William and the artist, Hew Locke sit in the chairs and are joined by ten people chosen from throughout the U. K. for a brief conversation.  Then Prince William moves down the row of flags and talks with the children about their understanding of Magna Carta.  He came within five feet of us with ten people in that space also trying to get a photo!


Prince William talking with a student about Magna Carta.

Her Majesty The Queen arrives with her husband, Lord Philip, her daughter, the Princess Royal (Princess Anne)  and her husband.  The Queen did not speak but her message in the program said: "The values of Magna Carta are not just important to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, but across the world.  Its principles are significant and enduring."

Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, remarked that King John and the barons would be "astonished to learn that over time Magna Carta came to be regarded as one of the most important constitutional documents in our history and that it continues to be so regarded 800 years after it was sealed on this very spot."  Prime Minister David Cameron said that Magna Carta was important because it represented such ideas as the limits to executive power, guaranteed access to justice and the rule of law - and the idea that "we should write these things down and live by them. . . . That might sound like a small thing to us today, but back then it was revolutionary - altering forever the balance of power between the governed and the government."  Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, noted that his predecessor, Stephen Langston, was a mediator between the King and the barons and that "Magna Carta sets a standard for our consideration of all human beings."  In conclusion, he encouraged us all to "seek the principled and active betterment of society as a whole, ensuring that all the rights and liberties afforded to them, both in our legal system and in our inherent worth as children of God, are, in the words of Magna Carta, 'enjoyed in their entirety, with lasting strength, forever.'"  The Queen then greeted members of the American delegation and other dignitaries before leaving for another engagement.


Archbishop of Canterbury, Prime Minister Cameron, HM The Queen, Lord Philip, Prince William, Princess Anne at Runnymede.

After The Queen's departure, the focus shifts to the ABA Memorial which is rededicated by the Princess Royal who points out that because of Magna Carta, "no person is above the law."  U. S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in her remarks that Magna Carta enshrined principles "that would one day stand at the heart of our own system of justice, the idea that no power is unconditional, and no rule is absolute, that we are not subjugated by and infallible authority but share authority with our fellow citizens."  The music also shifted with the orchestra performing Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and the Royal Marines Band playing "The Star Spangled Banner."


Princess Anne, ABA President William Hubbard & U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the rededication of ABA Memorial at Runnymede

Finally, the Red Arrows RAF display team flies over painting the sky with red, white and blue smoke.  Then everyone is provided a bag lunch and Runnymede becomes a giant picnic site. 

June 16-23 - Visiting Relatives; Final Thoughts
We spent three days in Cambridge visiting Nancy's cousins and three days in Gloucester visiting mine before returning to the U. S. on June 23.

Our experiences in London and in England was very uplifting and inspiring on many levels.  I feel a deeper connection to, and appreciation of, Magna Carta and what its humble and tortured beginnings have made possible.  I feel honored and proud to belong to a profession whose members work daily to bring justice, freedom and the rule of law to people everywhere.

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Mark Shem says...
Posted Friday, August 21, 2015
Mr. Bob. A fine report and good reminder of what we do day in and day out.
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