Magna Carta, pronounced MAG nuh KAHR tuh, is a document that marked a decisive step forward in the development of constitutional government and legal ideas in England. In later centuries, much of the rest of the world also benefited from it because many countries followed English models in creating their own governments. These countries include the United States and Canada. The Latin words Magna Carta mean Great Charter.

 

English barons forced King John to approve the charter in June 1215 at Runnymede, southwest of London. In the charter, the king granted many rights to the English aristocracy. The ordinary English people gained little. But many years later, Magna Carta became a model for those who demanded democratic government and individual rights for all. In its own time, the greatest value of Magna Carta was that it limited royal power and made it clear that even the king had to obey the law.

 

 

Reasons for the charter. From the Norman invasion of England in 1066 through the 1100’s, most of the kings who ruled England were able and strong. They usually tried to govern justly and respected feudal law. Under feudal law, nobles called barons received land in return for military and other services to the king. Law and custom established the barons’ duties and what was expected of the king. But there was no actual control over the king’s power. When John became king in 1199, he exercised his power even more forcefully than earlier kings. He demanded more military service than they did. He sold royal positions to the highest bidders. He demanded larger amounts of money without consulting the barons, which was contrary to feudal custom. He decided cases according to his wishes, and people who lost cases in his court had to pay crushing penalties.

English barons and church leaders began to express dissatisfaction with John’s rule early in his reign. Their unhappiness grew when he lost most of the English possessions in France in warfare lasting from 1202 to 1206. In 1213, a group met at St. Albans, near London, and drew up a list of demands based in part on the coronation charter of Henry I, who had been king from 1100 to 1135. After John lost an important battle against France at Bouvines (in what is now western Belgium) in 1214, civil war broke out in England. John saw that he could not defeat his opponents’ army, and so he agreed to a set of articles on June 15, 1215. Four days later, the articles were engrossed (written out in legal form) as a royal charter. Copies of the charter were distributed throughout the kingdom.

 

Promises in the charter. Magna Carta contained 63 articles, most of which pledged the king to uphold feudal customs. These articles chiefly benefited the barons and other landholders. One article granted the church freedom from royal interference. A few articles guaranteed rights to residents of towns. Ordinary free people and peasants were hardly mentioned in the charter, even though they made up by far the largest part of England’s population.

 

Some articles that in 1215 applied only to feudal landholders later became important to all the people. For example, the charter stated that the king could make no special demands for money without the consent of the barons. Later, this provision was used to support the argument that no tax should be raised without the consent of Parliament.

 

Still other articles became foundations for modern justice. One article says that the king will not sell, deny, or delay justice. Another says that no freeman shall be imprisoned, deprived of property, exiled, or destroyed, except by the lawful judgment of his peers (equals) or by the law of the land. The idea of due process of law, including trial by jury, developed from these articles. In John’s time, however, there was no such thing as trial by jury in criminal cases.

 

The charter tried to make the king keep his promises by establishing a council of barons. If the king violated the charter and ignored warnings of the council, it could raise an army to force the king to live by the charter’s provisions. But these measures were unsuccessful.

 

 

The charter after 1215. Magna Carta did not end the struggle between John and the barons. Neither side intended to abide by the charter completely. Pope Innocent III canceled the charter at the king’s request, and war broke out immediately. After John’s death in 1216, however, his son Henry III and later English kings promised to abide by the charter. The most famous of these promises was that of Edward I in 1297. Through these promises, the charter came to be recognized as part of the fundamental law of England.

In the 1600’s, members of parliament used Magna Carta to rally support in their struggle against the strong rule of the Stuart kings. These lawmakers came to view the charter as a constitutional check on royal power. They cited it as a legal support for the argument that there could be no laws or taxation without the consent of Parliament. These members of Parliament used the charter to demand guarantees of trial by jury, safeguards against unfair imprisonment, and other rights.

 

 

 

 

 

In the 1700’s, Sir William Blackstone, a famous lawyer, set down these ideals as legal rights of the people in his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England (see BLACKSTONE, SIR WILLIAM). Also in the 1700’s, colonists carried these English ideals on legal and political rights to America. The ideals eventually became part of the framework of the Constitution of the United States.

Four originals of the 1215 charter remain. Two are
inthe British Library in London, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and one in Lincoln Cathedral. For many years, the document was commonly known as Magna Charta. But in 1946, the British government officially adopted the Latin spelling, Magna Carta.

 

Contributor: Emily Zack Tabuteau, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Michigan State University
Additional resources

 

Holt, James C.Magna Carta. 2nd ed. Cambridge, 1992.

 

Holt, James C., ed.Magna Carta and the Idea of Liberty. 1972. Reprint. Krieger, 1982.

 

Pallister, Anne.Magna Carta. Oxford, 1971.

 

Turner, Ralph V. King John. Longman, 1994. Includes background on the origins of the Magna Carta.