- England’s King John was facing a possible rebellion by the country’s powerful barons.
- He agreed to a charter of liberties that would place him and all of England’s future sovereigns within the rule of law.
- The document eventually became the foundation for the English system of common law.
- The Magna Carta was very important to Englishmen in later years because it represented freedom from tyranny.
- The Founding Fathers of the United States of America celebrated this document as a symbol of freedom.
The Magna Carta remains an essential document in the history of democracy because it limits the monarchy’s power and gives more power to the people. It is one of the first examples of government by consent.
Table of Contents
John Becomes King
John was a prince whose parents were Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
He was not the first English king to give his citizens things like a charter. A charter is a document that lists the rights of the people, and he was the first English king to do this under threat of a civil war.
Henry I issued a Coronation Charter after he became king. In it, he promised to limit how much tax he would collect and that he would not take any church revenues. He also promised not to abuse his power in other ways.
Henry I did not follow the precepts, and the barons did not have the power to make him follow them.
As a result of the English crown’s need to fund the Crusades and pay a ransom for John’s brother and predecessor, Richard I, the barons later gained more power.
Richard I was called Richard the Lionheart because of his bravery. Emperor Henry VI of Germany captured him during the Third Crusade.
When Richard died without leaving any children, John had to compete with his nephew Arthur for the right to succession.
After a war with King Philip II of France, John became king.
King John Gains Enemies
John angered many people with his cruel treatment of prisoners, including Arthur. Some historians say it was probable that Arthur was killed because John ordered it.
John had lost the duchies of Normandy and Anjou and other territories because of a new war with France.
John’s prestige was damaged even further when he fought with Pope Innocent III.
John was the first English sovereign to be punished with ex-communication by being expelled from the Catholic church.
The Articles of the Barons
John demanded money from the barons who had not joined him on the battlefield to rebuild his fortune and reputation.
Despite John’s opposition, Stephen Langton was the pope’s man to be the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Stephen was able to use the unrest of the barons to put pressure on the king.
When the negotiations came to a stop, a war broke out. The rebels were led by a baron called Robert FitzWalter, and they ended up gaining control of London.
John had to give in because they won the battles.
John agreed to the barons’ terms on June 15, 1215, in a document called the Articles of the Barons.
This happened near the River Thames in Surrey.
The Magna Carta
After four more days of modifications, the king and the barons signed a formal document that would later be called the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was a document written in Latin that effectively served as the first written constitution in European history.
The charter writers didn’t want to give barons and other influential people too many rights.
The Magna Carta was unique because it compelled the king to obey the law, much like his people.
The Magna Carta was a document with 63 clauses covering law, liberty, and the church.
These clauses’ most famous and important explained the right to justice and a fair trial for all “free men.”
The charter was supposed to bring peace, but it failed three months later because there was a civil war.
After John’s death, his advisors issued the Magna Carta to his son and successor, Henry III.
The Magna Carta had some of its most controversial clauses because people didn’t want any more conflict.
The document got reissued in return for the king getting some taxes.
Each time a new version of the Magna Carta was created, it followed the “final” 1225 version.
More Modifications to the Magna Carta
King John’s successor, King Henry III, made three revisions to the Magna Carta during his reign.
The 1225 version of the Magna Carta, freely given by Henry III in return for a tax agreed to him by the whole kingdom, took it one step further and became the definitive text.
Then the Magna Carta began to take on symbolic status over time.
For centuries, the benefits of the Magna Carta were only for the elite classes like the aristocracy. The majority of English citizens did not have a voice in government.
Parliament saw the Magna Carta in the 14th century as guaranteeing trial by jury.
In the 17th century, Sir Edward Coke interpreted the Magna Carta to declare individual liberty in his conflict with the early Stuart kings.
The seventeenth century also saw two more important pieces of English legislation. The Petition of Right and the Habeas Corpus Act were important in shaping England and America’s legal systems.
During the 20th century, the Magna Carta influenced the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What is written in the Magna Carta?
Only three of the 63 clauses in the Magna Carta are still part of English law, even though it was initially given out with 63 articles.
This clause establishes the rights and customs of London and other towns.
The third clause in the charter is the most famous, and it says:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
This clause gave all people the right to justice and a fair trial. However, only a small number of people in medieval England were considered free.
Most people were unfree peasants called ‘villains,’ and they could only seek justice through the courts of their lords.
This clause, which was buried deep in Magna Carta, was not given much attention when first written in 1215. But its ability to be adapted has allowed succeeding generations to interpret it in ways that fit their purposes.
What clauses of the Magna Carta have no relevance today?
The Magna Carta dealt with many problems people had with their land, the way the justice system worked, and taxes that don’t exist anymore.
The document demanded the removal of fish weirs from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout England, and this was to allow for a more effortless flow of fish through these waterways.
The Magna Carta also restricted the firing of several royal functionaries.
People also wrote the Magna Carta to make sure that there was a standard for weights and measures. This is important because it ensures that merchants are not cheating the people they sell products to.
The Magna Carta also said that people needed to get permission from the king if they wanted to make charcoal or take wood for their purposes from the forests.
The Magna Carta prohibits the levying of taxes without ‘general consent of the realm,’ which meant the major barons and churchmen.
The charter re-established certain rights taken away from the English people. The laws got written down, not just spoken, so they had to get followed.
The Magna Carta linked fines to the severity of the offense so that people would not lose their livelihoods because of minor crimes. It also forbade the imprisonment of people who could not afford to pay their debts.
The charter also stated that a widow was not required to marry again against her wishes, giving women more control over their lives.
After this, the Magna Carta placed limits on the monarchy’s power and gave more power to the people.
The Magna Carta in America
In 1776, American colonists found the Magna Carta, the perfect model for their demands of freedom from England and the British crown. This document helped to inspire the colonists to fight for their independence.
The legacy of the Magna Carta is especially evident in the U.S. Constitution and in the Fifth Amendment, which says that no one can get deprived of life, liberty, or property without a fair trial.
The state constitutions often include ideas and phrases from the historic document.
The Magna Carta Today
Four original Magna Cartas of 1215 exist today and can be visited here:
- Lincoln Cathedral
- Salisbury Cathedral
- British Museum (which has two)
Check out the Feudal System if you’re interested in learning more about life in Medieval times!