Reading Revolutions:  Ideas for Teaching

Learning Activities

History Activities:  Magna Carta


A charter granted to the nobles and by extension to the commoners by King John at Runnymede on June 15, 1215 after the nobles joined forces and faced him down.  Rather than facing the potential loss of his throne through battle, King John signed the charter.  While he later reneged on many of the particulars, the charter served as the precedent for later laws and democratic practices.

Teaching Ideas


Show one of the versions of Robin Hood in class.  My particular favorite is the 1938 version The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. The 1991 version Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner is also on DVD.  An extensive list of Robin Hood movies has been compiled by John Chandler and will give you an idea of the pervasiveness of the legend.

King John's England was adopted by Hollywood from Howard Pyle's 1883, boys book The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.  It is the perfect setting for Robin Hood.  It has all the elements of drama:  Good King Richard, Bad King John, persecution of the common man through taxation, kidnaping, the Crusades, horses, bows and arrows, castles, and great costumes.  There is only one problem, the original legend of Robin Hood originated later and was unconnected to King John.

Students can be divided into two research teams:  one to research the legend of Robin Hood and one to research the truth about King Richard and King John.  The events leading to the Magna Carta are every bit as exciting as the legend of Robin Hood.

Roots of Freedom

Mantor Library at UMF has acquired a film from the British Library that describes Magna Carta and its background.   If you teach in the area, contact Mantor Library to schedule a viewing.  Show the class photographs of a copy from 1350, hand written on parchment. They are included on the Magna Carta page with an introduction to the history of that period.

Have the students read Magna Carta.  It is quite short.  It is available on-line at the British Museum with comments and interpretation..  While there are some well-known rights granted in the charter such as separation of church and state, trial by jury, representative government in the form of an advisory council, there are also other sections that had far-reaching consequences.  For instance, the laws of inheritance for both widows and children were drastically changed to safeguard survivors.  Before this, the king had the right to marry off a widow to the highest bidder.  The new husband took not only a bride, but the lands and wealth as well.  By challenging this practice, the nobles struck a first blow for the rights of women and children.  

Roots of Language

Magna Carta was written in Latin.  When you show the students copies of pages have them see if they can read any words.  This can also be done on-line with the original through the British Library.  There is an enlargeable image of one of the original copies held at the British Library.  Students can use the translation to try to see if they can decipher the Latin. The word "London" should be able to be easy to find.

Discuss the use of Latin as a universal language up through the Renaissance.  Compare this to the present role of English in the world.  Would the world be better off with a single language?  Should we all learn Esperanto?  

Have the students find words with Latin roots in the dictionary.  For instance, you could give them a root and have them try to think of all the words that use it.

The Latin dict means "to say" and becomes in English:  contradict, dictate, diction, edict, predict

The Latin pend means "to hang" and becomes in English:  append, depend, impend, pendant, pendulum

The Latin tract means "to pull, drag, draw" and becomes in English: attract, contract, detract, extract, protract, retract, traction

Life and Times

At the time of the manuscript

The copy of Magna Carta on this website dates from 1350.  Students might remark on some of the physical features they notice.  The book is handwritten. Ask them to estimate how long it would take a scribe to produce the book.  The handwriting is certainly different than the printing of today.  We find it very hard to read.  Relate penmanship and spelling to the availability of knowledge.  

The manuscript is illuminated with gold and colors.  This allowed the reader to easily find chapters and passages.  The idea of indexes and chapter headings are later developments.  The scribes also were able to relieve the tedium of copy work and show their skills by doing some fancy scrolls.  Why don't we have books like this today?  The standard of living in 1542 was much lower than ours today and yet they produced things of great beauty.  We produce paperbacks.  How could they afford it?  How much would it cost today?  This discussion should lead to a consideration of wealth, class, education, and the economics of production and art.

At the time of the charter

What was the common man's life like in 1215?  What possessions did they have?  How did they dress?  How different were the nobility?  Would you like to go back and live in a castle as the lord or lady or are you more comfortable and secure today?  When reading Magna Carta the students should reflect on the fact that the rights described did not exist and would not be common practice for several hundred years.

Today and tomorrow

Today, one of the great debates in our culture concerns the right of privacy.  With technological breakthroughs anyone can invade our privacy.  How do you feel about your sibling going through your drawers, reading your diary, borrowing your things?  Should those in power have the right to observe us at all times?  The argument is that if you aren't doing anything wrong, you shouldn't mind.  It will keep you safe from those who do break the law.  The problem comes when the laws change or are vague and simply based on suspicion.  Younger students may have a difficult time relating to bank accounts, spending habits, and hospital records.  Discuss the possibility of cameras in the playground, recording their telephone conversations, surveillance in their bedrooms.

Have the students research some of the great movements that followed Magna Carta to establish our present level of liberty.  Talk about the effort it takes to maintain freedom and the constant threat posed by complacency.  Our students live in a world where their liberty is constricting in the name of the common good.  When is it good to forego a freedom and when should you hold on with all your might?

Further Internet Resources

Magna Carta
English Translation without Notes

Historical Background to Magna Carta
Discussion and Criticism

Brief Introduction to Magna Carta
Relation to Bill of Rights

King John and King Richard
Brothers and Rivals

King John and Magna Carta
Background and Discussion -- Includes multiple-choice questions

Robin Hood
Discussion by Julie Nelson Couch in PDF format

Robin Hood -- Which King?
A short discussion of some of the different kings associated with the Robin Hood legend.

(c) Marilyn Shea, 2006