The Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”) is considered one of the most significant documents in history. First issued by King John of England in 1215, it formalizes the covenant whereby the king was compelled by the barons and the authorities of the church to make a series of promises regarding rights and privileges, thus imposing constraints on the powers of a monarchy hitherto regarded as absolute. Over the following centuries, the Magna Carta has had a strong influence not only on British constitutional history but also on the democratic development of other nations.
The signing of the Magna Carta has long been lauded as a defining moment in human history and has been cited as a touchstone of English common law by those seeking the guarantee of rights and freedoms in nations throughout the world. It is important, however, to note that the charter did not grant rights and privileges to all people in 1215. The English barons, or noblemen, and the church drafted the Magna Carta to assert their own rights and thereby check the power of the monarchy. The common people of England initially gained little. The document’s prestige increased over time with the development of parliamentary government. It became a symbol for liberty and individual rights against oppressive rule.
Earlier English kings had made agreements with their barons. The Magna Carta differs in that it is the first important example of the king’s subjects demanding rights and forcing him to concede. John became king in 1199 and lost little time in angering his subjects. He waged war unsuccessfully in France, which required him to raise taxes and conscript more nobles for military service than had his predecessors. He broke with feuDalí tradition by failing to consult with his barons on important issues. John also clashed with Pope Innocent III over the appointment of the archbishop of Canterbury. This quarrel resulted in John’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church in 1209. Reconciliation with the church was immediately followed by additional military defeats. In 1213, the disaffected barons and clergy met and outlined a list of articles. John dismissed these twice before the barons raised an army. The king then reluctantly arranged to meet with them at Runnymede, south of London, and agree to terms.
The Magna Carta was concluded on June 19, 1215, following much squabbling. Written in Latin, as was the custom during the age, it was essentially a peace treaty. It contained a preamble and 63 articles, which were for the most part reactionary rather than revolutionary. The articles were divided into separate groups dealing with issues such as law and justice, conduct of royal officials, trade, the independence of the church, and the royal forests. The concluding articles concerned King John’s loyalty to the Magna Carta and the right of the barons to challenge the king should he ignore the charter. The Magna Carta was reissued and amended a number of times in subsequent years. The vague wording of many of the articles has left considerable room for interpretation over time. Later generations interpreted clauses 39 and 40 in particular as protections of habeus corpus and trial by jury, but the reasoning has been much debated.
The stature of the Magna Carta increased over time as English lawyers and members of parliament cited it in arguing the rule of law. In addition to English common law, the charter has influenced constitutions throughout the world, including that of the United States. Four of the original copies are known to remain.
James P. Bonanno
See also Hammurabi, Codex of; Law; Morality
Holt, J. C. (1965). Magna Carta. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Turner, R. V. (2003). Magna Carta: Through the ages. London: Pearson Education.