Magna Carta: The Great Charter

On June 15, 1215, King John affixed his royal seal to Magna Carta, often known as “the Great Charter“, in response to a revolt by the English nobles against his reign. The pact, a peace contract between John and his barons, ensured that the monarch would honor feudal rights and privileges, uphold religious liberty, and enforce the nation’s laws. Later generations viewed the Magna Carta as a linchpin in creating a democratic England, even though it was a more conservative than progressive document in its day.

In 1199, following the death of his brother, King Richard the Lion-Hearted, John was crowned king of England. The reign of King John was marked by failure. He lost the duchy of Normandy to the French monarch and unduly taxed the English aristocracy to pay for his exploits abroad. He fought with Pope Innocent III and sold ecclesiastical posts to replenish the royal finances. In 1214, following the failure of a campaign to retake Normandy, Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, urged the angry barons to seek a charter of liberty from the king.

In 1215, the barons rebelled against the monarch’s misuse of feudal law and tradition. In the face of an overwhelming army, John had no option but to comply with their demands. Earlier English monarchs had offered concessions to their feudal nobles, but these charters were ambiguous and issued freely. The letter drafted for John in June 1215, however, compelled the monarch to guarantee the rights and privileges of his barons and the church’s independence. John visited the barons at Runnymede on the Thames on June 15, 1215, and affixed his seal to the Articles of the Barons, which, after minor revisions, were released as the Magna Carta.

The charter consisted of a prologue and 63 paragraphs and mostly addressed feudal problems that had little influence outside England in the 13th century. Nonetheless, the text was notable in that it meant that the king was obligated to respect some rules, precluding any future claim to absolute power by the English monarch. Clause 39 declared that “no free man shall be detained or imprisoned or disseised, dispossessed or blacklisted or banished or otherwise victimized...except by the legitimate judgment of his peers or by the law of the nation,” was of particular relevance to future generations. This provision, which inspired England’s Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act, has been recognized as an early promise of trial by jury and habeas corpus (1679).

The civil war occurred the same year Magna Carta was signed, and King John neglected his commitments under the charter. However, after he died in 1216, Magna Carta was published with minor modifications by his son, King Henry III, and then again in 1217. In that year, the soldiers of the monarch overcame the rebellious barons. Henry III freely republished the Magna Carta a third time in 1225 and was legally incorporated into English law.

Magna Carta has been the subject of considerable historical exaggeration; it did not create Parliament, as some have asserted, nor did it do more than vaguely hint at the liberal democratic ideals of succeeding decades. As a symbol of the supremacy of the rule of law, however, it was crucial to the constitutional history of England. Existing now are four genuine copies of the 1215 Magna Carta: one at Lincoln Cathedral, one at Salisbury Cathedral, and two at the British Museum.

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