Magna Carta

In 1215, King John of England was facing a potential rebellion by many of the baron’s that held power. His rule allowed heavy taxation and poorly planned and unsuccessful foreign policies to begin to bring the country down. The King was forced to face the fact that he had to agree to a charter of liberties that became known as the “Magna Carta” (also known as the Great Charter). This was a major change as it placed the royal King along with all of the future sovereigns within the rule of the law of England.

Magna Carta

King John of England was the youngest son of King Henry II. He was not the first King to give in to the demands for a charter, but was the first King to do so under the threat of a possible civil war. Other Kings, including Henry I, had signed charters that did such things as limit taxation and the abuse of power, but even after signing them, he ignored them and did as he wished.

John was under a lot of pressure as in 1208 he had a feud with Pope Innocent III which led to his status as being the first sovereign to ever be excommunicated from the church. Military defeats with France made King John close to desperation as he tried to refill the royal coffers with money demanded by the barons that did not support him on the battlefield. When the barons threatened civil war and some entered into battle, his opponents ended up taking control of London and putting John in a position of being forced to concede.

In June, 1215, at a location beside the River Thames, called Runnymede, King John accepted the terms in a document given to him and called the “Articles of the Barons”. It took four days of negotiations and changes and the barons and the king issued the formal version which would be known as the Magna Carta.

The intent of the Magna Carta was supposed to be more of a peace treaty, but it didn’t work well because within three months, civil war broke out. After the death of King John in 1216, the advisors to the heir of the throne, Henry III, reissued the Magna Carta with some of the clauses that caused the most argument, removed. This action kept further conflict from happening. The Magna Carta was reissued two more times, once in 1217 and then again in 1225 in return for a grant of taxation to the king.

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was written in Latin and was really the first constitution, in writing that existed in the history of Europe. Of the sixty three clauses, many were on the topic of the property rights of power citizens and the barons, including limited intentions of the farmers. The benefits of the charter were really for the elite class of people, without giving the general citizens any voice in the government.


By the 17th century, two acts of English legislation were added: the 1628 Petition of Right and the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act. The Habeas Corpus Act is called Clause 39 and states that “no free man shall be…imprisoned or disseised (dispossessed)…except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” Clause 40 states “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice”. These two acts, including their clauses became important parts of the future legal systems of both Britain and the United States.

In later years, Englishmen would view the Magna Carta as a major symbol of freedom from oppression. The Founding Fathers of the United States of America looked at the charter in 1776 and used it as an historical precedence for gaining their freedom from the English crown.